Mark 3:1-6

Text Comment

It is, apparently, the synagogue in Capernaum once again, the same place where some weeks before and also on a Sabbath he had driven an evil spirit out of a man. In any case, the Pharisees were already offended by the Lord’s behavior on the Sabbath and were ready to find further fault.

According to most of the rabbis, and certainly those the Pharisees followed, healing on the Sabbath, unless a person’s life was at stake, was work and so forbidden. There is nothing remotely like this in the Old Testament, but, as we have said, the rabbis had by this time developed a much more elaborate set of rules regarding what could or could not be done on the Sabbath day. And their rules were more important to them than God’s rules.

In any case, we can imagine the scene with the Pharisees present staring at Jesus hoping that he would do something to expose himself as a Sabbath-breaker.

In this case the handicapped man apparently did not seek Jesus’ help. The Lord sought him out of the crowd. He was perfectly willing to challenge the religious leadership directly by taking advantage of an opportunity provided by the presence of a man with a withered or shriveled hand. And so, lest anyone miss what he is about to do, he had the man stand up. That would have been a cruel thing to do – make a public spectacle of a handicapped man – but not when miraculous healing is the object!
Obviously the man had suffered with his hand for a long time. One more day wasn’t going to matter. But the Lord of the Sabbath is obviously intending to say straightaway that doing good works, serving people, helping them is not and never was a violation of the fourth commandment. As he will argue elsewhere, the Sabbath is a day precisely for the doing of good works. It is not simply that such a kindness is permitted on the Sabbath; it should be done on the Sabbath. There is no better day of the week on which to do such a kindness! The Pharisaic attitude, on the other hand, not only wholly misses the point of the day but smacks of indifference to human beings, to human suffering, to human need. Love for others trumps the ingenuity of the rabbis in delineating all the various ways one might “work” and so profane the Sabbath. [France, 150] The Lord’s remark is ironic as well. He knows how the Pharisees hate him and he may be aware of or anticipating their desire to murder him, something we are about to learn. So the contrast he draws is between his delivering a man from a great burden and their plotting to murder the Son of God, all on the Sabbath day! Which is a more appropriate Sabbath Day activity: healing or murder?
“Hardness of heart” in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament describes the willful refusal of people to accept the truth even when it is powerfully demonstrated to them, as here. The man does what Jesus tells him and his faith is rewarded magnificently. But Jesus’ kindness, the man’s happiness, the stunning miracle are all beside the point to the Pharisees. The Synoptic Gospels don’t use the word “faith” as much as the Apostle Paul does, but they very often describe the same thing in action. Here the man believes and his obedience to Jesus in stretching out his hand is the proof of his faith.
The Pharisees and the Herodians had very different political viewpoints and were far from natural allies. The Pharisees were Jewish patriots and the Herodians supporters of the non-Jewish royal family of Herod – one of Herod the Great’s sons, remember, now ruled in Galilee as a client king for the Romans – a family most Jews despised. In fact the Pharisees detested the Herodians. But the two groups were united in their hatred of Jesus and it is a demonstration of the measure of the Pharisees’ hatred of Jesus that they were willing to swallow their pride to work with the Herodians to get rid of him. It also proves that the opposition to Jesus now springing up was something deeper than a particular religious or political viewpoint.

There is a “thickness” to the biblical text that must be appreciated by a congregation that listens to expository preaching Sunday by Sunday. From time to time, you no doubt wonder why one theme in a text is preached and another is left unremarked upon. Here, as everywhere else in the Bible, there are layers of meaning in each paragraph and, for that reason, any number of subjects could be fairly addressed from any text without imposing upon it an interpretation that did not arise naturally from the text itself. Such is certainly the case here. Most of the time it is my intention to preach what I regard to be the nub of the passage, the primary gist or burden of the text: the point the author seems intending to make in the context. But that does not mean that other important things are not said along the way, either in support of the main point or beside it. And, insofar as this is the Word of God, everything in a text is important and everything can be of great use to us.

We have here in our text this morning, for example, a magnificent illustration of the Lord’s compassion for people, his interest in their lives, his concern for their welfare. It is obvious that in this incident Jesus once again makes plain and powerful his rejection of a religious life that remains enamored of public correctness in behavior but little interested in love, either the love of God or the love of man. A correct life – as correctness may be defined in such a system – is no substitute for a heart that feels the woe of other people and that looks to God’s love and power for redress on their behalf. Jesus was offended – as he is always offended – by callousness in the religious mind and heart. The man God approves, he is as much as telling us by his own action, is the one who is less concerned about filling the box or checking the square and much more about loving others as he himself has been loved. The Lord’s anger at the Pharisees over their indifference to this man’s heartache and their attachment to their religion of rules and regulations is a powerful and beautiful demonstration of the difference between true and false faith. It is as well a striking illustration of the power of a religious ideal to blind people to the love of God even when that love is standing directly in front of them.

All that is here, no doubt, and it deserves a sermon. But Mark’s text takes its place in the Gospel narrative primarily as a demonstration of something else: namely the antipathy that so quickly developed toward Jesus on the part of the religious leadership. Misgivings had very rapidly become a settled hatred that itself now fueled – unbelievable as it may seem – a plot to murder him. It is this development that Mark sees fit to describe as he concludes this short narrative. This is the result of the miracle that Jesus performed. It is this development that will explain much of the history that follows and, at the last, the crucifixion itself. But it is not simply that Mark makes this the conclusion of the matter, the point of his narrative. That is reason enough for us to take careful notice of it. But the fact is, this is the hard truth, the unwelcome truth that, in the nature of the case, we find so easy to ignore, or, if not entirely to ignore, to slight, to leave unmentioned or unnoticed. But hard truth abounds in the Bible and the happy truth cannot really be understood or appreciated until the hard truth is faced. That fact makes it even more important to let Mark’s narrative speak for itself. It is precisely the point of this narrative that reveals the essential truth about human beings that we are all so loathe to admit.

This section of the Gospel of Mark ought to hit anyone unfamiliar with the story a heavy blow to the solar plexus. Something astonishing, unexpected, and ugly, appears here, something most people rarely think about or will even admit. We have been introduced to Jesus of Nazareth. His teaching, with its unprecedented authority, amazed the crowds of people who gathered to hear him. His miracles of healing gave hope to hundreds and astonished all the rest. They thought that this could be nothing else but the dawning of a new and wonderful day!

But, at the same time, it has been obvious that all were not pleased. Jesus’ teaching has provoked disagreement. His views, in some important ways, contradicted the conventional wisdom. Fair enough. But that does not prepare us for the malevolence, the pure hatred of Jesus that we encounter at the beginning of chapter 3. Not only are these men now of a mind to look for reasons to condemn Jesus – you know how it is when you hate someone; nothing he does can be admirable, no opinion of his can be right – but, put in their place and humiliated once more by the healing of this man in the synagogue, they crossed the line from hatred to murder and began to look for a way to kill the Prince of Life.

The Son of God has come among men. He has taught the truth to them with an astonishing authority and then authenticated his message with works of breath-taking power, works that invariably blessed people, healed them, delivered them, made them happier than they had ever been before. The Devil possessed people and blighted their lives. Jesus rescued them, restored them, and gave them back their freedom. But none of this mattered to the Pharisees or the Herodians. Jesus didn’t dot their “i”s or cross their “t”s, he didn’t flatter them and commend them, and, what was worse, he seemed to please and excite the crowds more than they did. It does not take an expert in human nature to imagine that envy and jealousy were motivating their dislike of Jesus and this becomes clearer as the story proceeds. In any case, in a fury of spite, they actually sit down and talk about murdering this man from Nazareth! Imagine the conversation as they talked about when he might be found alone, who might do the deed, and how they might cover their tracks. Imagine them justifying what they plotted to do. It was, of course, a conversation held in secret. Only the participants knew it had occurred or what was said there. For all the justifications they used to exonerate themselves and to soothe their consciences, the fact is that they kept it all a secret. They would not admit to others what they were planning to do. For all their pretended moral concern, for all their pretence of concern for the true faith, their secrecy gives them away.

Most people who entertain the popular myth that Jesus was a fine man who went about doing good and teaching us to love one another never face the punishing problem with this picture. If Jesus were such a man and had such a ministry, why did he provoke such bitter antagonism and why, at last, did they scream for his death. Nobody I know is demanding the head of Deepak Chopra for telling people to meditate their way to wellness. But many people apparently imagine that the story of Jesus is like that of Ferdinand the Bull, who peacefully lounged in the field contentedly chomping on grass until, for some inexplicable reason, they came and carted him off to the bullring. As Archbishop William Temple once famously put it, “Why anyone should have troubled to crucify the Christ of Liberal Protestantism has always been a mystery.” [Readings in St. John’s Gospel, xxiv]

Albert Einstein was once asked if he accepted the historical existence of Jesus. He replied, “Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.” [Isaacson, Einstein, 386] That sounds promising; but, of course, such a positive opinion does not explain why Jesus was murdered. Einstein makes it sound like everyone would have loved Jesus; but everyone did not! The Jesus of history, as a matter of fact, repudiated the favorite religious ideas of his time; he forced upon men and women a decision concerning himself. He left them with no choice but to bow the knee to him as Lord and Savior and this they had no intention of doing. Many more people finally hated Jesus than loved him.

In fact the hatred of Jesus is fundamental to the Gospel history. It will appear again and again, it explains so much of what will happen over the next several years, and alone explains the paroxysm of anger that culminated in Jesus’ crucifixion. And what is supremely important to realize is that this hatred in the face of Jesus was hardly a reaction unique to that time and that situation. The Bible says that men are God’s enemies and express their hatred of God in various ways all the time. Paul will later say the sinful mind – that is, human beings by nature – is hostile to God. And what we have here in Mark 3 is simply one illustration of that truth. What the Pharisees thought about Jesus and how they reacted to him is but a single instance a universal phenomenon. It is not what people think is the case, of course; certainly not what they believe about themselves; but it is the truth that explains the world.

Jonathan Edwards, one of the greatest preachers and perhaps the greatest theologian that America has produced, has a lengthy sermon entitled, Men Naturally God’s Enemies. In that brilliant sermon Edwards points out that almost everything that the Bible says about God men and women wish were not true. They don’t like the divine attributes; they have, in Edwards’ words, “an inbred distaste and disrelish of God’s perfections.” God is not such a being as they admire or like. And so much do they dislike him that they really hate him. They hate his holiness, they hate his omniscience, they hate his justice, they hate his power because these things are a threat to them. They wish to remain their own gods and the true and living God will not let them do so. He is, therefore, their enemy. And Jesus, the incarnation of the true and living God, was for that reason the enemy of even those we might have expected to welcome him with open arms.

Now rarely will a man or woman come out and say that he or she hates God. Rarely will they admit it even to themselves. But there are many truths we don’t admit to ourselves and certainly don’t admit to others. You don’t like people who tell you what’s wrong with you, even if they are telling the absolute truth. And the Pharisees didn’t like Jesus for the same reason.

The Lord once said to his brothers, Mary’s other sons by Joseph, at a time when his siblings were still unbelievers, that the world didn’t hate them, but it did hate him, “because I testify that what it does is evil.” The world is chock full of people who think polite thoughts about Jesus from a distance. But as soon as he appears before them, whether in the witness of a Christian or the preaching of a Christian minister, as soon as he makes his claims and demands, as soon as he begins to insist upon his divine prerogatives, and, in particular, as soon as he condemns them for what they think and say and do, at that moment polite indifference becomes active hatred. Unless, indeed, the Spirit of God overcomes that hatred and turns it into love.

John Cotton, one of the pilgrim fathers and a Puritan pastor of colonial New England, while still an unbeliever and a student at Cambridge University, sat, as he was required to, under the preaching of William Perkins, one of the first of the great Puritan theologians and preachers. Cotton had no taste whatsoever for the things of God as Perkins preached them, no interest in his message of God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice for sin that filled Perkins’ sermons, and he confesses in his Memoirs that on the day of Perkins’ death, when he heard the funeral bell toll for the great preacher, his heart was filled with a secret delight that the great man was dead. It was all a secret to everyone else but John Cotton hated Christ and hated those who represented Christ to him. [Mather, The Great Works of Christ in America, i, 255] There is absolutely nothing unusual or uncommon about such hatred. I remember Bennett Cerf, the publisher and founder of Random House, once saying that he took secret delight when he heard of a Christian missionary being killed: what right did such people have, he said, to impose their thinking on others. Bennett Cerf didn’t love God and didn’t love those who served God as a result. He excused it as a principled defense of people’s freedom to live as they please but, of course, it was nothing of the kind. Bennett Cerf himself was always telling other people how to live.

We are seeing more and more and more of this hatred for God and Christ made public in our culture as it moves further and further from the respectful deference to the Christian faith that once was required, at least in public. There has been a series of books published recently, most reviewed quite favorably in the major newspapers, The New York Times in particular, bashing Christianity and Christians. We are described as “theocrats” and “fascists,” intent on imposing our own crabbed version of life upon the rest of the world. Daniel Dennett, the philosopher, in his recent book describes Christianity, any form of theism in fact, as a poison. Richard Dawkins, the Oxford professor, in his book The God Delusion, describes the act of Christian parents teaching the faith to their children as a form of child abuse. [Cf. Michael Novak, Remembering the Secular Age,” First Things (June/July 2007) 35; Chuck Colson, “Overheated Rhetoric,” Christianity Today (June 2007) 80] These men are all atheists and they write with a certain defensiveness of tone because they realize that most people don’t agree with them. But, the fact is, as we shall see, in their distaste for Christianity, they have more in common with most people, including religious people, than they realize. In fact they share the main thing: they are just like these Pharisees who wanted Jesus dea. At the last the atheist and the religious man are one: both haters of God.

Now, it is certainly true that sometimes Christians can bring odium down upon Christ and the Christian faith for reasons that have nothing to do with Jesus, his life or his teaching. But this new spate of books is remarkable for the vitriol that they spew against Christianity itself. The portrait painted of Jesus in the Gospels themselves is offensive to these writers; they think that it is foolish, unscientific, even immoral. Well, let them say so. It is, in fact, what the Bible says everyone thinks in his or her truest self, unless and until he or she becomes a follower of Christ.

This window on the Pharisees, given us here in this incident in the Capernaum synagogue, opens upon an extremely important part of the Bible’s picture of man in sin. The Pharisees were, of course, normal people. They thought themselves moral people, good people, attractive people. But the fact is they made plans to murder the Son of God. Actions speak louder than words. But what is so important for us to realize and to accept is that the Pharisees were people just like everyone else and just like everyone else today. We think, “We would never do what they did. They were unusually bad men.” But, no, they were normal, ordinary people. And at the end, at Jesus’ crucifixion, everyone, or virtually everyone, did what they planned to do here. These Pharisees are not unique or unusual. They are entirely typical and that is what makes this text so important.

It is a very unflattering view we are given here; a very unflattering view of some men that most people in Capernaum that day would have esteemed as good men, respectable men, substantial men. But that is precisely what makes their hatred of Jesus so important and so revealing. In 1918, Sigmund Freud, concluded:

“I have found little that is good about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash no matter whether they publicly subscribe to this or that ethical doctrine or to none at all.”

In a public letter exchange with Freud in 1933, organized by the Institute for Intellectual Cooperation, Albert Einstein suggested that because human beings have within them a “lust for hatred and destruction,” international relations should be subject to a supra-national organization with authority to mediate disputes. Freud replied that he agreed that man “has in him an active instinct for hatred…” but he was very pessimistic about the likely success of any device intended to curb it. [Isaacson, 382] Well, whatever you think of Einstein’s and Freud’s gloomy opinion of human beings in general, you haven’t looked into the black depths of fallen human nature until you have reckoned with the fact that these respectable religious men would murder if they could, murder the man whose worst crime was that he had helped desperately needy people so wonderfully.

It is this visceral love of self and hatred of God, deep in the human heart, that alone explains the world in which we live and the coming judgment of God. It is only the malevolence and the virulent fury of man against God that explains and vindicates the punishment that is reserved for the unbeliever at the last day. To most people such penalty, hell itself, seems unnecessary, cruel and unusual punishment, far too harsh a response to what we think are only man’s peccadilloes. Surely he has done nothing to deserve God’s wrath! So men think. But it is not so.

One of the greatest lessons to be learned in reading Dante’s Inferno, that theological masterpiece describing the judgment of the Lord upon sinful man, is the great poet’s depiction of men and women in hell as now exposed for what they had always been. In this world their characters had been in some large part hidden from view, even from their own view. These Pharisees certainly didn’t think of themselves as murderers. They excused their conduct with very high-sounding motivations. Certainly no one else imagined that they were plotting Jesus’ death. They kept all of that very carefully hidden. But in hell men will appear as they really are, as they always were. And when you see them there – hateful, sullen, mean-spirited, obstinate, embittered, consumed by self – when you see them with all of the pretence stripped away, see them as they would be now were it not for forces that curb and control human evil – forces God has put in this world and will someday remove – I say, when you see them as they really are, you do not doubt for a moment that God was entirely right, perfectly just to send them to such a place. And so we will defend and vindicate that divine judgment – which judgment is, after all, the presupposition of our entire Christian faith (for who needs a Savior if there is nothing to be saved from?) – we will, I say, vindicate that judgment far more persuasively both to ourselves and to others when we do not forget but remember the bitter hatred that immediately surfaced in human hearts when the Son of God came near to them and when he demanded the worship of those self-centered hearts. The closer God comes to a man, the more that man shows his true colors! A hater of God can only pretend to be a lover of God when God seems far away.

Remembering this will also help us to love this world much less, this world that, for all its polite respectability, for all its pose of sincerity, for its pretended interest in higher things, hated and then murdered Jesus. And why? For no other reasons than that he was so good, did so much good, and looked so much better than we do. That scene in the synagogue in Capernaum is an almost perfect picture of this world. The men in that Sabbath service seeming to be so good, so moral, so upright – they were religious men at church, for goodness sake – but in their hearts all the while raged this lust for themselves, for their place, for the admiration of others, that brooked no opposition, especially not that of the Son of God. It was not until perfect goodness came among them that they were seen for what they really were, and even then, they hid most of that as long as they could. That is man; that is this world apart from the grace of God and the transformation of heart that only the Holy Spirit can bring to pass. He is terribly proud, and no one can be proud in the presence of the Son of God. So, the Son of God had to go. I’m sure some of those Pharisees had relatives Jesus healed. It mattered not. They would not surrender their pride.

The only Jesus Christ that unrenewed, unchanged man can tolerate is the imaginary Jesus who lets us go our own way, makes no demands, compliments us for our achievements, overlooks our faults, confines himself to harmless platitudes, and suggests that we might meditate our way to wellness. The Jesus who actually exists, who exercises the power of God, who forgives sins, but who demands allegiance and obedience, that Jesus will always be the object of man’s hatred. Man will hide that hatred well: it will be masked as indifference much of the time, as condescension, as a willingness to rewrite the Gospel history itself, if need be, to make of Jesus simply one among a great many holy men who have come and gone in human history. Men will not admit that they hate God or that they are as hateful to others in their hearts as these respectable Pharisees were. But they maintain that pretence only by keeping their distance from God. The closer he gets to them, the more overt their hatred becomes.

It is imperative for human beings to see the true state of things. If you are not a Christian, a follower of Christ, if your heart has not been transformed by the Spirit of God so that you love Christ, God sees you as a hater of his Son. Whatever you may think about yourself, however highly you regard yourself – and you have a considerably higher view of yourself than anyone else does – God thinks of you as a hater of his Son. The Apostle Paul would later pronounce a curse on all those who do not love the Lord Jesus and you hate him! You may mask that hatred very well – even to yourself – but God knows the truth! You don’t love God; you don’t love others. I’ve been a Christian all my life; I know this truth about mankind. This is the burden Christians must bear. The change the Spirit has accomplished in us is hardly complete. We now can see perfectly well how much a hater of God and of others we were and still are. Believe me when I tell you, I hardly can admit to myself how little I love God and how very little I love other human beings. So great is my self-love that it crowds out all other loves. I have to say that about me even as one who really does love God. The proof that all men really are haters of God is that Christians themselves can see those Pharisees so plainly within themselves. Even men and women – perhaps especially men and women – who love God the most know to their dying shame how much of those Pharisees there is still in themselves.

If you could see yourself as God sees you, could see yourself in these Pharisees and Herodians plotting to kill Jesus, you would immediately cry out to God to change your heart of hatred into a heart of love for Jesus. You would be so desperate to see your heart changed in that way that you wouldn’t care what it took to change it.

O Lord, if thus so obstinate I,
Choose thou, before my spirit die,
A piercing pain, a killing sin,
And to my proud heart run them in.

And if you find yourself a lover of Christ this morning, by the grace of God and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, then rejoice as that man with the withered hand rejoiced to find himself whole. As that service in Capernaum that day ended two sorts of people left the synagogue: the only two kinds of people there ever are in this world. Some left rejoicing in the power and grace of God that had restored that poor man’s life. Others left gnashing their teeth at the one who had done such a kindness. It is the beginning of all knowledge to learn to which group you belong.