"The Pharisees Conspired"
September 22, 2019 Speaker: Pastor Bob Davis
Passage: Mark 3:1–6
Today, more from Jesus and the church authorities – a series of confrontations. As we have been going through these accounts, we have been looking at both: a) what Mark tells us about Jesus; and b) why Mark would choose to include these episodes in the gospel.
Thus far, what Mark has told us about Jesus is this: He introduced us to Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. He also has told us that Jesus’ coming was good news. Why is Jesus good news? He was the fulfillment of God’s promises: to provide a savior, to heal his people from sin and brokenness to redeem and restore creation to its perfect and unblemished state, and to establish his holy order. This was what Jesus was proclaiming with his mission statement that we read in chapter 1, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”
Doesn’t that sound like good news? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be saved from all the ills and injustices we experience? Can you imagine watching the news and not having your blood pressure rise in frustration? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be saved from all the things in your own life the embarrass, shame, and cause you to withdraw – dying a little more each day? How awesome would it be to live – actually live – as God created us to be? Jesus was proclaiming that kingdom. It was not “pie-in-the-sky, by-and-by” someday; it was “the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near.” Now. It is happening now. Jesus was saying the kingdom of God had arrived in him. We can start living that kingdom life now. We are being saved, now.
Then Mark gives episode after episode demonstrating Jesus’ authority on earth. Each step revealed a new advance for the kingdom of God that Jesus was proclaiming. From this distance and with our familiarity with the fantastic imagination of fiction, it may be difficult to be impressed. However, we cannot help but see how Mark wanted his readers to continually ask, “Who is this?”
Even though we are still early in the gospel, Mark has already shared with his readers that Jesus’ life and ministry put him in conflict with the earth’s authorities: to this point, religious authorities. Jesus – manifesting the power of the kingdom of God he proclaimed – prevailed in each of these conflicts. For believers enduring persecution in Rome, this would have been a message of hope in time when their worldly situation was discouraging. Today’s text culminates a series of the five early conflicts in Capernaum and we see several things that are important for believers to see.
I. Jesus is in control.
A theme throughout the controversy stories has been how Jesus had the authority to do things that only God could do. Jesus not only had the authority – he was the authority. Remember the texts we have covered: how Jesus said to the scribes who were offended because they thought Jesus blasphemed, “So that you know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – and he turned to the paralytic – “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” (2:10-11) He said to Levi/Matthew, “Follow me.” (2:14) Levi dropped everything and followed. Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Have you never read?” (2:25) and they had no answer; then, “so the Son of Man is lord of even the Sabbath.” (2:28).
I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago, but it bears repeating here today. The Pharisees get a lot of bad press in the gospels. They were mistaken, for sure. That said, it is too simplistic to discount them and look down our noses at them as if we are not prone to the same sorts of error.
We miss the radical nature of Jesus’ self-revelation if we reduce the Pharisees to cartoon villains. They were not ill-intentioned ne’er-do-wells or criminal masterminds thwarted by superhero Jesus. They were sincere Jewish believers trying to be faithful to the covenant God had established at Sinai. They were urging their peers to do the same; believing that God would act to restore Israel to a privileged place if only the people would repent and commit themselves to acting like God required. They looked around and – the Roman occupation being the most obvious case-in-point – they saw how disobedience to God led to disastrous consequences. Consider these from the Old Testament:
Deuteronomy 30 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Isaiah 1 The vision of Isaiah … which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem ... Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.
Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the LORD, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged! Why do you seek further beatings? Why do you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and bleeding wounds; they have not been drained, or bound up, or softened with oil. Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence aliens devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners.
Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 1:1-7, 18-20)
Do you get the picture? Obey the covenant, things go well; disobey the Law and Israel suffers. The Pharisees understood their role to be the guardians of the covenant. They understood that it was their job to spot frauds and con men. You know people were coming to them asking, “Well? What do you think? Is this guy Jesus the real deal, or what?” What would you have said? In Acts 5, after the resurrection, we get this debate in the Council – though we are off in time, it gives history that would be forefront in the Pharisees’ minds:
Acts 5:34 But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. 35 Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. 36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. 37 After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered.
In other words, miracle workers had shown up before only to prove to be false prophets and charlatans. Now, here came Jesus. He did not seem to do things the way they understood scripture or how they had come to do them by tradition; he taught with authority and applied scripture differently than they had ever known. The Pharisees – the supposed experts – found themselves in completely unfamiliar territory. Instead of recognizing what was happening, they turned and tried to protect the status quo. Out of fear, they began to preserve the very outcome they prayed God would deliver them from. Anyone here ever do that? They went out and conspired to destroy the very savior they prayed God to provide.
The other thing to note here is that the Pharisees were hoisted on their own petard thinking they were in control. They had come to witness something “so that they might accuse him.” Yet when Jesus confronted them with the question, they were silent. Not only could they not accuse Jesus, they could not see a way out when he turned the tables.
Jesus drove the action on this sabbath day. Jesus entered the synagogue. The Pharisees watched. Jesus commanded the man to come forward. The Pharisees watched. Jesus asked the Pharisees a question. The Pharisees did not answer, they just watched. He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” Then, the Pharisees left.
Jesus always is in control. He could have avoided this confrontation; he could have healed the man the next day. Yet, he chose not to be controlled by the Pharisees, by their expectations, by tradition, or by anything else.
Consider what Jesus revealed about the kingdom of God. According to Mark the man with the withered hand was in the entrance of the synagogue, the closest someone with a defect could get to the holiest part of the worship space. Those with defects or who were “unclean” were not welcome in the center of the worship area. When Jesus commanded the man to come forward, he commanded him to come to the center of an area surrounded by benches, where (by law) only those without defect or impurity could sit. Jesus called the man to the center of the center – to the holy of holies – and then removed the man’s defect. The man’s obedience – that is, responding to the call of the holy One – resulted in a transformation that brought the man from exclusion to embrace. He did not approach Jesus because he was perfect; he approached Jesus because Jesus called him forward to make him perfect.
How do you approach Jesus? Are you waiting until you get it all figured out and get it all right before saying, “OK, Jesus, here I am”? Are you hoping that Jesus does not come around until you have your act together? If so, you are mistaking who is in control: it’s not you, it’s Jesus.
One of the most fascinating questions I ever asked in a Bible study setting was, “Do you want Jesus to return?” This is different than, “Do you expect Jesus to return?” The question is, “Do you want Jesus to return?” Are you looking forward to it or do you kind of hope he waits a little longer? Some of the people there said, “Well, maybe not rightnow.” “I would like to see my kids…;” or “I’d like to do…” or “I am ashamed of something and don’t want to have to face him with it.”
I am not saying that having hopes for kids and having goals and seeking to make change are bad things; however, when they take priority over our desire to be face-to-face with Jesus, we have to take a hard look. Mark drew the distinction between the man with the withered hand and the Pharisees: the man with the withered hand heard Jesus’ call to come and obeyed – leading to life; the Pharisees heard that same call, rejected it, and moved towards darkness. The Pharisees missed the point.
II. Jesus’ control reveals hard hearts.
Missing the point often reveals a hard heart. Hard hearts, unfortunately, are more often found in churches than they are outside of churches. Remember: the Pharisees were considered good church people. In fact, they competed with each other to be the most righteous in their own eyes. Hard hearts generally follow self-righteousness; it is a condition of where we forget who is God.
Many believers go through this experience: they have an encounter with the living God, receive Jesus as Lord and Savior, and rejoice. They want to tell everybody about what has happened to them. They cannot understand why everyone else is not as excited. Then about a year later, they have become “church people.” Their joy has been drained out of them – first, they started to feel guilty that others did not share their joy; second, they began to wonder if they really understood what that joy was all about; and then, third, they got comfortable in just being a church attender. The excitement is not there; but they still think, “you know, I am not that bad a person. I go to church and we do some good stuff. Things are all right.”
Oh, be careful. That is the first part of the slippery slope down into self-righteousness. When we forget who is God and we forget that we need God and we stop seeking after God, we begin building that wall around our hearts that gets hard very quickly. We gradually begin trying to protect God from others’ sin. We take on the responsibility for making judgments for God; condemning them for failures while quietly hoping God will overlook our little indiscretions.
Hard hearts are condemning; tender hearts are inviting. Hard hearts judge first, then dismiss. Tender hearts are compassionate first, then walk alongside to healing. Hard hearts rely on their own understanding; tender hearts look to God.
We can get hard hearts as individuals, we can get hard hearts as congregations, we can get hard hearts as a people. When God confronts hard hearts unwilling to break, God gets angry. You see it in our text, “Jesus looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart.” Think about that: Jesus asked the question and saw them sitting there in silence, not wanting to engage the truth. He looked around at them. I imagine this was more than a little uncomfortable, more than a quick glance. I think he waited and let the silence sink in. There is judgment in that silence; Jesus was angry at the Pharisees erroneous self-righteousness and grieved at the hardness of their hearts.
How is your heart?
III. Jesus fulfills Scripture and the promises of God.
So, here we are in the second week of sermons regarding a controversy on the sabbath and many of you may still be wondering, “Well, what can we and can we not do on the sabbath? I still don’t know.” My response will remain the same, “How is your walk with Jesus?”
It is the right question because here’s the thing: these encounters are not really about sabbath. Sabbath is the presenting issue. The real issue in these encounters involves the question, who is Jesus? All of these Capernaum events were about the character of God. Mark used these episodes to point to the personal nature of God.
For the Pharisees, the sabbath was a tangible indicator of Israel’s status as God’s chosen people. Observing the sabbath made them different. But in their efforts to preserve their part of the covenant with God, they had wandered away from relating to God; that is, they remembered the law but forgot the lawgiver.
For Christians, confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior is what marks us as being different. Following Jesus is the indicator of being a child of God. It is not something we do, it is something we are. We are children of God because God has adopted us.
You see the difference in this text. The Pharisees had come to see Jesus do something that would form the basis of an accusation against him. The man with the withered hand was obeying the law; and, when Jesus called, he obeyed. He recognized God’s voice. The Pharisees did not.
There is irony in this confrontation; Jesus’ healing the man’s withered hand did not violate sabbath; it actually fulfilled the purpose of sabbath. The sabbath was meant to be restorative, re-creative, healing. God created the sabbath for the benefit of mankind, Jesus said, and not mankind to serve the sabbath. The sabbath was not meant for rigid passivity. It was made for creative passivity.
In other words, God may have rested; but God is not passive on the sabbath. He restores our souls. He moves in us and transforms us. The sabbath is really God’s call to give him room to work in our lives. Do you have time for God to work in your life? Do you give him that time or are you too busy?
Jesus uses the sabbath to heal a man; to restore him, to bring him back to life. Jesus did not simply heal the man’s hand; he brought wholeness and new life in relationship with God, an indicator the age of salvation. In that sense, Jesus saved the man.
Are you willing to have God work on your life? Each week, I have people ask me to pray. Please do not be surprised when you hear, “What is it you would like Jesus to do for you?” I am not peddling snake oil, nor am I promising an instant cure-all. Rather, it is a clarifying question – it is a sabbath question – what is it you want God to do in your life? Do you need healing for something that has withered in your life? Give Jesus room in your life to work. Do you need reconciliation with someone else? Give Jesus room in your life to work. Do struggles with money cause you to forget about God? Give God room in your life to work. Whatever it is – sin, sorrow, brokenness, loneliness, struggles of any sort – the point is, will you give Jesus room in your life to deal with whatever it is?
The healing on the sabbath is consistent with the message Jesus was proclaiming in his preaching and teaching, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is near; repent, and believe the gospel.” The healing was a manifestation of the dawning of the new day in the kingdom of God -- and the Pharisees walked out. We are still living into the reality of the kingdom of God and will only see it fully when Jesus returns.
As we wrap up this morning, recognize that Mark was telling believers a number of powerful things about Jesus. First, Jesus is in control. He knew what he was doing, he chose the path that he took, he came for the purpose of redeeming you and redeeming me and calling us to follow him. Second, following Jesus will lead to conflict with many different kinds of authorities, but those authorities will always be secondary to him. Jesus prevails over hard hearts. Finally, Jesus does not break Scripture; he fulfills it.
Jesus said to the man with the withered hand, “Come forward.” He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. Today, when you leave this place, make room for God to work healing and restoration in your life.
AFFIRMATION OF FAITH: Westminster Confession of Faith
In the gospel God declares his love for the world and his desire that all men should be saved; reveals fully and clearly the only way of salvation; promises eternal life to all who truly repent and believe in Christ; invites and commands all to embrace the offered mercy; and by his Spirit accompanying the Word pleads with men to accept his gracious invitation.