We have a guest author on the blog this week, Rev. Tom Harr from Faith Presbyterian in Wilmington. Thanks, Tom!
The issue being debated in Mark 7 is what makes someone unclean in God’s eyes; what makes someone unacceptable to God. The Pharisees are blaming external things – you are unacceptable because of what you touch, where you go, what you eat. But Jesus says the problem is much more personal and what he says is startling. He says the problem is not outside us. It is us.
Now you may feel offended. “How dare you!” you say. Because this isn’t how people usually talk about wrongdoing. We are used to hearing people in public life calling the wrong things they have done a “mistake”—something that came upon them. But Jesus says that is nonsense. Sin is not something that we come across “out there” in which we are unintentionally caught. It is something that flows out of our heart. It comes out of us and we have to own up and take responsibility for it.
However, as you participate in and support the work of Good Neighbors, beware of a very dangerous tendency. This is what I mean: Without thinking, it’s often very easy to assume that there is a direct line to be drawn from a someone’s personal sin and their needy circumstances. In other words, we assume (even without thinking) that the person we are helping wouldn’t need our help if only that had made wiser decisions (for example, like us).
But while a person’s unwise (even sinful) decisions can certainly lead to circumstances of need, that’s not the point Jesus is making. Jesus’ debate here is with the Pharisees and teachers of the law (Mark 7:1) who often used the sin of “those people” to justify avoiding them, lest they be polluted themselves. But Jesus is saying to them that’s not how you get polluted. Sin affects us from the inside—including, as he lists in v.22, the sin of pride.
So when we encounter those in need, even when their suffering stems in part from their sin, a Good Neighbor moves toward them for two reasons. First, we move toward them because there is nothing infectious about need. Our own sin comes from inside of us and we have plenty of it. And second, we move toward them in their need because Jesus moved toward us in ours. In his sacrificial death on the cross, Jesus died the death of a criminal—an unclean outcast. And ironically it wasn’t what was on the inside that corrupted him. For him, it did come from the outside. It came from us. Praise God today for making us clean in Christ.
The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men. (ESV)
It’s easy to read accounts like this one and be hard on the apostles. They essentially interrupt Jesus’s ministry and tell him to get rid of the people he’s teaching. Then they try to make it about the welfare of the people--it’s late, they need to eat, tell them to go so they can take care of themselves. But it backfires on them! What does Jesus say? “You give them something to eat.”
Of course, it doesn’t end there, but the full story doesn’t begin here in verse 34, either, even though we get a hint. Back in verses 7-13, Jesus sends out the twelve, charging them to do mighty works in his name and preach the gospel. In our passage today, this is what they have returned from doing. As verses 12 and 13 tell us, they spent their time proclaiming “that people should repent,” and “cast[ing] out demons and annoint[ing] with oil many who were sick and heal[ing] them.” In short, they’ve been doing the work of ministry that Jesus called them to and they’re tired. And we know that they’re tired, because the first thing Jesus instructs them to do when they return is to withdraw and rest (31).
Maybe it isn’t so easy to come down hard on the apostles at this point, because it’s getting easier to see ourselves reflected back from the story. We are often worn out from the work of ministry. Whether we are serving our churches in some capacity, or fixing homes, or any combination of different things in different spheres, serving the Lord can be physically and spiritually draining. When we’ve finished with a work, we may feel entitled to pass on the next thing that the Lord puts before us—as though he is ignorant of our situation, and as though it is for us to assess whether it is in our capacity to answer his call.
But our Lord is not ignorant! The same Jesus who calls them to feed these five thousand people called them to withdraw and rest at the beginning of the passage. But the same Jesus who called them to withdraw and rest also has compassion on this great crowd with no shepherd. Jesus knows that the need is great, and though he knows his servants are physically and spiritually spent, he calls them out of their rest to minister to these people. But here’s the thing you shouldn’t miss: the Jesus who calls them out of their rest empowers them to do the work he has for them. Just as he, in verse 7, gave the apostles authority over unclean spirits so that they could cast them out, Jesus now provides the means to pull off this miraculous feeding of five thousand men.
The Lord graciously gives his people rest. He made us, he knows us, and he understands that we, as finite creatures, need time to withdraw and restore our strength. But the Lord also calls us, in his time, to minister to a lost world. Often, that call interrupts our plans for a much-needed rest. Often, that call comes right after we’ve finished serving him in other ways. But brothers and sisters, in these moments, be encouraged: the same Lord who calls us out of our weakness to serve him gives us the strength and power we need to answer his call.
And a great crowd followed him and thronged about him. And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.” And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my garments?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’” And he looked around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (ESV)
“Your faith has made you well.” Just as in Mark 2, we have an account of someone going through great difficulty to get to Jesus, but the difficulty here is less obvious. What’s so hard about walking through a crowd and touching a robe? We find the answer in Leviticus 15:19 and 15:25:
When a woman has a discharge, and the discharge in her body is blood, she shall be in her menstrual impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening...and if a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her menstrual impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness. As in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean. (ESV)
This poor woman is like a leper: her condition makes her ceremonially unclean, unable to draw near to the Lord in temple worship (25); and with that, nobody would want to be near her, because to touch her would be to become unclean (19). She is effectively cut off from her people, and she has been for twelve years.
Why would she come to Jesus? She has spent all that she has and still the disease persists, and has in fact gotten worse. Why would she believe another promise of healing? And even if she would believe, what could she hope to get in exchange for her unclean, empty hands?
Do you see yourself in the story yet? In Isaiah 64:6, the prophet laments: “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away” (NIV). Paul tells us in Galatians that “by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16, ESV), so how can we hope to draw near?
With one touch to Jesus's garment, this woman is healed. Instead of Jesus being made unclean by her touch, his power heals her and her twelve years of suffering are over. But it’s not because he has on a magic robe. It isn’t because his physical body has some talismanic element to it. She is healed because “[her] faith has made [her] well.” Why would she come to Jesus? Why would she believe that he could heal her? Why would she come with unclean, empty hands? Because she recognizes what the Pharisees missed back in Mark 2: that the power to heal chronic diseases with a word or a touch is not some common thing. In fact, the power to heal belongs exclusively to a much greater power—the greatest power—the power of God alone. She recognizes that in Jesus all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell. She believes what he can do, because she knows who he is. Her faith has made her well, and the text implies spiritual, as well as physical wellness—that she understands that her need runs deeper than the disease, to her very heart.
As we read the gospel accounts, we see Jesus healing many, feeding many, loving many. But every act of mercy testifies to a deeper spiritual reality, and points to Jesus himself as our only hope in this life and the next. At Good Neighbors, we fix homes in his name. We shower mercy on our neighbors in need, in the hope that they will see their deeper need. We want Jesus to fix not only their earthly homes, but to be their savior. We want them to trust in him alone and his work on the cross to pay the penalty for their sins, for them to bring nothing but their unclean, empty hands, and hold them out to Jesus. We want their faith to make them well.
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (ESV)
At Good Neighbors, we seek to restore hope by repairing homes. But what does that mean? Hope in what? Hope for what? In the short term, fixing homes for our needy neighbors restores hope in a stable present. If your roof is falling apart, it’s hard to feel secure. It might even be impossible to remain healthy. If we fix your roof, you have one less thing to worry about—one less thing convincing you that your life is, well, hopeless. It might even create a spark of hope for improvement in other areas, like your job or your relationships.
These are good things, but at the root, we seek to restore abiding hope—hope for this life and the next—by pointing homeowners (and the watching world) to Jesus Christ. The hope that is in Jesus is not a guarantee against present hardship, but a promise that he will walk with us in our troubled times. It is a promise that our present afflictions are light and momentary compared to the eternal weight of glory that awaits us. But hope in Jesus requires knowing who Jesus is.
And so now we come to Mark 4. I remember the first time I read today’s passage, I thought that Jesus was being kind of harsh with his disciples. Why shouldn’t they be afraid? How were they to know that he would wake up and stop the storm? If I was in a small boat in a raging storm, I would be afraid, too, wouldn’t I? It’s easy for us to miss what the disciples miss; it’s easy for us to forget who Jesus is.
If you revisit the preceding chapters, you’ll see Jesus constantly demonstrating his authority—authority in doctrine, authority over natural forces, and authority over spiritual forces. And if all of the teaching, healing, and demon eviction don’t make things plain enough, in Mark 2, Jesus declares sins forgiven, and proves his authority through another healing miracle. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”, the scribes ask themselves in Mark 2. Who can heal paralytics but God alone? Who can command demons to leave tortured souls but God alone? The answer is no one. If no one but God can do these things, and Jesus does these things, then Jesus is God.
So why did Jesus tie the disciples’ fear to a lack of faith? Because they have already seen his authority over all things. Calming the storm is yet another amazing proof of his identity, but he has shown himself to them constantly in the time leading up to this point, and they have every reason to believe that where God the Son leads them, God the Son is with them. This is the hope that we ultimately desire to see restored to our homeowners. When we trust in Jesus’s work on the cross, and we follow him, we may follow him into toil and struggle and uncertainty. But it is no mere mantra or mere man that we follow, but Jesus, the God-Man, fully man, yes, but also fully God. The storm is never in control in Mark 4, and neither is the toil nor the struggle in our lives. The one who has called us to take up our cross and follow him has promised to be with us always, to the end of the age. He has promised an eternal weight of glory. This is true, lasting hope for today, for tomorrow, and forever.
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And 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. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. (ESV)
There are lots of reasons not to do something—some good, others less so. Jesus’s experience here in Mark 3 warns us against one particularly bad one. As in most cases, the Pharisees thought that they were doing the will of God. In an effort to avoid transgressing the Law (in this case the fourth commandment), they built a hedge around it—an “outer wall” so that they would not risk coming close to the “inner wall”. So where the Law says “on [the Sabbath Day] you shall not do any work” (Deuteronomy 5:14), the Pharisees determined that they—and all Israel—should avoid anything remotely resembling the form of work. As our passage shows us, this would have included acts of mercy.
What motivation lay at the heart of the Pharisees’ hedge around the Law? If you could go back and ask one of them, I’m sure they could have recited the Ten Commandments verbatim. God had given Israel these “ten words” flowing directly out of his provision for them: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deuteronomy 5:6). The Pharisees would no doubt tell you that they built hedges to ensure that they—and all Israel—paid proper honor to the Holy One of Israel, who had rescued them from bondage and made them a great nation.
But here in Mark 3, we get a look at the real motivation underlying the Pharisees’ practice: power. Look at verse 2—Jesus has cut in on their authority, both through his teaching and his miraculous works, so they lie in wait for him to slip up—presumably that they might publicly humiliate him for his failure to meet their man-made standards about the Law. Their motive springs not from a desire to honor God, whose power is evident in Jesus’ ministry, but rather from a desire to destroy that ministry.
Jesus next asks them a simple question, forcing the underlying issue: is it lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath? Their refusal to answer—to acknowledge that a failure to help this man was actually to do him harm—reveals a deeper motive: hardness of heart. They had built a hedge around the Law to exert power over God (look how diligently I keep your commands) and man, and have so hardened their hearts that they only grip their self-deception tighter the more it is exposed.
So what’s the lesson for us? Self-deception is easy. It was easy for the Pharisees, and it’s easy for God’s people today. It’s easy for us to cling tightly to what blessings the Lord has provided out of our own desire for personal security, and call it responsible stewardship—all while our neighbor withers in our midst. It’s easy for us to consider ourselves a Christ-minded people in doctrine while failing to imitate Christ in our communities. May we be honest with ourselves, praying to our Father that his Spirit would work through his Word and expose the idols in our hearts, laying bare our self-deception. And may we never grieve our Lord Jesus with hard hearts that blasphemously pit love for him against love for neighbor.
And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!” (ESV)
Last week, I asked the question “why did Jesus come?”, which encompasses “why did Jesus heal?”, as well. Mark 1 told us that Jesus was “moved by pity,” but it was not life circumstances alone that concerned him. Imagine how astonishing a scene it must have been for those many gathered around Jesus here at the start of Mark 2. A man is lowered through the roof on his bed, clearly paralyzed, and Jesus’s response must confound everyone. To an observer, this paralytic’s greatest need is the restoration of his body. But to Jesus, who in his spirit perceives the hearts of men, his greatest need is to be reconciled to God in Christ. The crowd sees the implied request--heal me—and yet Jesus does not appear to give what is being asked of him. Or does he?
Verse 5 tells us that “Jesus saw their faith.” Faith in what, or whom? It is obvious on the surface that the paralytic and his friends had some expectation that Jesus could heal, maybe even that he would, but when we consider the larger context of Scripture, the faith of these men comes into clearer focus. As I said last week:
Jesus came to call sinners to repentance from their sins and to faith in himself. Jesus introduced “...a better hope...through which we draw near to God.” (Hebrews 7:19).
The faith of these men is the faith that believes that Jesus is the better hope. That in him, and him only will they find forgiveness of sins and draw near to God. So although their obvious reason for coming was a broken body, their primary reason for coming was to draw near to God in Christ.
Jesus heals the broken body, as well, but it isn’t some sort of package deal—it isn’t “well, since you believe, now I’ll heal your body, too.” We do indeed encounter some instances of “your faith has made you well” in the gospels, but not so here. Here, in verses 10 and 11, Jesus heals as a testament to who is—no less than God himself. Verse 7 shows the scribes indignant that Jesus would presume to forgive a man’s sins, and Jesus answers with a visible act that only God could perform.
Why do we fix houses? We fix houses to point to the one who can meet our neighbors’ truest need—that in the love that we show them they would perceive the love of Christ and come to him in repentance and faith. But we also fix houses as a testimony before the watching world—that in his church they would see his authority vindicated by his power to transform wretched sinners into instruments of common grace in the world. May our mission be ever clear, and may God be glorified as we, in his power, carry it out.
And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.
Throughout the first chapter of Mark, we see first John, and then Jesus, meeting the needs of the people. And every step of the way, Jesus and John point to deeper spiritual realities and needs: John’s water baptism points to one “who will baptize [them] with the Holy Spirit” (v.8); Simon, Andrew, James, and John are tending to the business of fishing, but Jesus calls them to leave their work and follow him. As the chapter progresses, the practical and spiritual natures of Jesus’ ministry become entwined as he drives out unclean spirits and demons so powerful that they can convulse their hosts.
Why did Jesus come? In verse 15, he begins his public ministry with this proclamation: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” In John 3:16, he tells Nicodemus that God sent him “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus came to call sinners to repentance from their sins and to faith in himself. Jesus introduced “...a better hope...through which we draw near to God.” (Hebrews 7:19).
As we come to the end of the chapter, beginning in verse 40, we read of Jesus healing a leper. This man would have been physically separated from his people, including his family, because under the law of Moses, his disease rendered him unclean, and therefore unfit to bring his worship to the Lord; and on top of that, anyone who came into physical contact with him would also be considered unclean for a time. This man’s leprosy alienated him from his people, and more significantly, it kept him from drawing near to God in temple worship.
And here we see Jesus granting what he asks. He heals the man of his leprosy, and instructs him to go and be cleansed according to the law of Moses. Why? The immediate context tells us that Jesus was “moved with pity.” But the larger context of the chapter, and indeed of the entire Biblical narrative, tells us more. The unclean spirit in verse 24 calls Jesus “the Holy One of God.” Peter will later confess Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God. In John 8, Jesus identifies himself by the name God gave Moses to tell the Israelites when they asked who had sent him. Jesus is God—the Word made flesh. Moved by pity, Jesus heals this leper of his physical condition, but in so doing, he testifies both to the man’s greatest spiritual need and its fulfillment: the Christ, the Savior—Jesus himself. Jesus’ call to the people of Galilee, to his fisherman-disciples, to the unclean and demon-possessed, to the lepers, and to us, is the same: repent, and believe in the Gospel. Believe in Jesus, because in him there is life—because in him, in the Son, we can at last draw near to God.