Let's turn together to Mark's gospel chapter 3, and this is our 18th study - believe it or not - in Mark's gospel these Sunday mornings, and we are only entering now chapter 3. Our title for today's message is 'The Sabbath Setup', and we will be reading from verses 1 to 6, and carrying through the theme of our sermon from last week which was 'The Lord of the Sabbath'.
Verse 1 of Mark 3: "And he", the Lord Jesus, "entered again into the synagogue; and there was a man there which had a withered hand. And they watched him, whether he would heal him on the sabbath day; that they might accuse him. And he saith unto the man which had the withered hand, Stand forth. And he saith unto them, Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill? But they held their peace. And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, he saith unto the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it out: and his hand was restored whole as the other. And the Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him".
Now verses 1 to 6 of Mark 3 form the last of this first series of five conflict narratives. In other words, Mark's account of how the Lord's behaviour and the behaviour of the Lord's disciples flew in the face of the established rabbinical tradition, the laws of the Pharisees and the Scribes, the tradition of the elders of Judaism. Because of the Lord and His disciples' behaviour, the Scribes and Pharisees were questioning, criticising the controversial conduct of the controversial Christ. Let me remind you of those again, perhaps you weren't with us in previous studies. If you look at verse 7 of chapter 2, you will see that the Lord Jesus forgave the sins of the man that was paralysed, who you remember was let down through the roof by his four friends. Having spoken these words of absolution to this man, the religious leaders said in verse 7: 'Who can forgive sins, but God only? He is speaking blasphemy to speak these words of forgiveness!'.
Then the second occasion where they criticised Him is in verse 16. You remember that Levi followed the Lord Jesus, believed on Him, and Levi brought some of his friends to his home to introduce them to the Lord Jesus; and the Pharisees saw Him eat with publicans and sinners, and they said unto His disciples: 'How is it that he eats and drinks with publicans and sinners?'. They were appalled at His contact with these sinners. Then in verse 18 the third event which flows out of the last one, 'The disciples of John and the Pharisees', His accusers say, 'used to fast', and they come and say unto Him, 'Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not?'. We think that the day that the Lord feasted with these publicans and sinners in Levi's house was a traditional Jewish day of fasting, and they were appalled that the Lord and His disciples were feasting when they thought, according to their rules and regulations, He should have been observing a fast.
Then verse 24, where we were last week, the fourth account of controversy: 'And the Pharisees said unto him', after His disciples had walked through the cornfield and plucked the ears of corn and ate them, 'Why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful?'. Now we showed last week that the Lord and His disciples did not transgress the law of Moses, rather they transgressed the laws that the Pharisees and Scribes had added to the law of Moses.
Now the fifth account of controversy that we have here in verses 1 to 6 of chapter 3, I believe, takes the form of a test case. Verses 1 and 2 seem to indicate that: 'He entered again into the synagogue; and there was a man there which had a withered hand. And they watched him', the Pharisees and Scribes watched the Lord Jesus, 'whether he would heal him on the sabbath day; that they might accuse him'. They are going up a gear in their attempt to ensnare and trap the Lord Jesus as a transgressor of the law.
Now I'm going to make a suggestion to you, and I can't prove it from these verses or any others, but I believe it is quite possible that the Pharisees could have created this scenario as a test case for Jesus, to accuse Jesus of non-observance of the sabbath. Now one thing is absolutely certain, and that is that they were treating this man with the withered hand in the synagogue as a test case for Jesus. The question is whether he was there of his own volition, or whether they had planted him there knowing that the Lord Jesus would never miss synagogue on the sabbath, knowing that the Lord Jesus was always compelled to help those who were most needy, and therefore they planted him in order to - as they thought - lure the Lord Jesus into a trap of healing on the Sabbath day.
Now whether you accept that or not, either way they should never have underestimated the Lord's knowledge of their intentions. We see always that with His divine mind, He is steps ahead of these Scribes and Pharisees. Not only should they not have underestimated His wisdom, but His all-wise ability to turn the tables back on them. However, they still thought that if they could get the Lord Jesus to heal this man, if they could get Him to fall for the bait, they would have a case against Him in order to condemn Him for a transgression of Sabbath laws - ultimately to kill Him, that's where these guys are going to: they want to condemn the Lord Jesus to death.
So let's look this morning at this Sabbath setup. First of all I want you to see the test case trap that they lay for the Lord Jesus. We've read these verses, verses 1 and 2, look at them again - verse 1 tells us half way through that there was a man there in the synagogue which had a withered hand. Now Kenneth Wuest, in his commentary and translation which I'm relying heavily on this morning, is very helpful in this regard. He points out that the Greek participle here indicates that this man had come to have a withered hand - in other words, he wasn't born with a withered hand, it wasn't a congenital defect. Whether through accident or some disease that he had contracted, his hand had become withered. A withered hand simply meant that his hand was atrophied, it was wasted, withered, it was palsied, it was paralysed. Luke, the physician, in his gospel, chapter 6 and verse 6 with a physician's precision tells us that it was this man's right-hand - and we assume, perhaps, that he was right-handed, and this disabled him in a great way in his daily life, and probably in his livelihood.
Imagine this man, here in the synagogue, such a pitiful creature. He was the ideal inducement to get the Lord Jesus to heal, that the Pharisees and Scribes might ambush Him on the Sabbath. So, if you look at verse 2 it says: 'They watched him', to see what He would do. The 'they', of course, is the delegation from the Sanhedrin which no one could miss sitting in the synagogue, because they always sat in the front seats so that everyone could see them. The front seats were the seats of honour, and it was their duty to, from those front seats, spy and see that no one was leading the people of Judaism astray. Anyone likely to mislead or seduce the people from the right way would be reprimanded severely, and perhaps even cast out of the synagogue - that means fellowship was disallowed.
They watched Him. Now, the Greek there for 'watched him' is a verb that is in the imperfect tense, now that means that what is being spoken of here is a continuous action. They kept on watching Him, that's the sense. In other words, they were bent on finding fault, they were scrutinising every move of the Lord Jesus. Now the prefix preposition on this verb is 'para', which means 'beside', and it speaks of how the Pharisees were like sideline observers, watching the Lord Jesus continuously. This is the picture, there is an aloofness in their behaviour. They don't want to be seen to be near the Lord Jesus, or beside the Lord Jesus, lest anyone accuse them of fellowship with the Lord Jesus. Yet, even though they were aloof, they were engrossed with Him. You can see them, can't you, with their backs turned, but looking behind them, and looking at each other - they're scrutinising the Lord to find fault.
The illustration of a spy is a wonderful one. They want to create the persona that is false in order to get some intelligence for their end goal. Someone has put it like this: 'Here were the watchdogs of Israel's religion attempting to discredit this claimant to Messiahship by finding Him violating its regulations'. What were they watching for? Look at verse 2: whether He would heal this man on the sabbath day, that they might accuse Him. That word 'accuse' means 'to formally accuse before a tribunal', to bring a charge publicly to the Saviour in order to condemn Him. If the Lord healed this man on the sabbath, their desire was to rush and kill Him like a pack of wolves - that's how serious this test case trap is.
Here's the great question that we need to answer, just as we sought to answer the question during last week's incident: had these Pharisees and Scribes legal grounds to accuse the Lord Jesus of breaking the sabbath if He healed this man? Was it grounds for condemning Him? Would He have broken the law of Moses if He had healed this man, as of course He did? Well, if we go into the law, Exodus chapter 31 verses 14 to 17 provides that the violator of the sabbath should be killed - but did the Lord Jesus violate the sabbath? As we saw last week, what the law of Moses actually said, and what these lawyers had made the law become were very different. At times there were subtle differences, at times they had taken laws to reasonable and logical conclusions which were unwarranted by Scripture - but the Scribes had taken the law of Moses a little bit further, from violating the sabbath as it is written in the Torah, to coming to a position where they as lawyers and Pharisees determined precisely in which cases it was proper to speak of breaking the sabbath. So they became the chief interpreters of law, and infallible as such.
So in relation to healing someone on the Sabbath, these Pharisees, Scribes and rabbis said: 'Well, you have to make sure that if you're going to heal someone, that person's life is in immediate danger'. It's got to be a life and death situation. Then you've got to decide to what extent you need to help them - you don't have to go all the way, but you must only go as far as to save their life. Now imagine how ridiculous this is in a practical scenario: someone is in real need - if you, for instance (today is not the sabbath by the way, but this is Saturday, the Jewish sabbath), but imagine someone, as you're going out the door this morning, gets hit by a car, and you believe these laws just as these rabbis did. The first thought that comes into your mind is not the natural human instinct to help someone spontaneously, but rather to think: 'Well, is this man or woman going to die? If they're going to die I'll have to help them, if not, well, they're alright, I can't touch them'. Maybe you think: 'They are going to die, I will help them' - then you've got to start to calculate in your mind, 'What can I do to save their life, but not do too much in order to condemn my soul'. It's idiotic, isn't it?
How serious is serious enough, to help a person? What procedure to help them is, or is not religiously right to adopt? You might say: 'These Jews were off their head in their day, it's ridiculous! It's hard to think of this today' - well, is it really? Is it? It is not so other-wordly when you consider that, particularly in the United States of America, doctors, surgeons, medical practitioners are absolutely terrified of litigation - being sued - to such an extent that doctors think twice now, some of them at least, if they walk by someone who is in need, of treating them; lest that person, after they get well, if they get well, sue them, or if they die the family sues them. Indeed, I read in USA Next, an Internet site which is a media site, an article on the 11th December 2003, which said this: 'Not only are doctors leaving health care, but patient care is jeopardized. One survey revealed over 76% of doctors are concerned that malpractice litigation hurts their ability to provide quality care to their patients. Patients are being subjected to additional, and often unnecessary, testing simply because doctors are threatened by possible lawsuits at every turn. 79% of doctors said they ordered more tests than they normally would have, for fear of lawsuits. 51% recommended more invasive procedures (such as biopsies) to confirm diagnoses than they otherwise would have. Out-of-control lawsuits discourage reporting of errors and development of systems to track, and therefore reduce, medical errors'.
You see what's happening, in that situation anyway, in our modern day age - what is happening? An over-emphasis on law is destroying the higher principle of care - have you got it? Legalism is eroding love. To prove their legalistic point, the Pharisees and Scribes used this man with the withered hand as a pawn in a religious game. They weren't concerned about the man's predicament. They weren't knowledgeable, at least consciously, of the fact that they had no power to heal this man. It's even worse than that, they resented the fact that Christ had the power to heal him. They sought to use that great supernatural divine power of the Lord Jesus against Him to condemn Him.
So, in the Lord Jesus' day, to provide medical attention on the sabbath in cases that meant other than life or death was considered by the rabbinical schools as working. Healing was only permitted when the person was not likely to live another day. Let me give you an example of this: if a wall fell on anyone, enough rubble was allowed to be cleared away to see whether the person was dead or alive. If he were alive he might be helped, and if he were dead the body had to stay there another day. A fracture could not be attended to, it wasn't life-threatening, and you couldn't even pour cold water on it - a sprained ankle or hand - in order to relieve it; that was work. A cut on your finger, if it was bleeding severely, might be bandaged with a plain bandage, but you weren't allowed to put any ointment on it. When you put ointment on it that was work. Therefore, at most, an injury could be kept from getting worse, that was the mentality - keep life-threatening things from getting worse, but don't make them any better. As far as these Pharisees were concerned, this man with the withered hand had been living with a withered hand for many years, and there was no need for Christ to heal him on the sabbath, it wasn't an emergency, life or death case. You've got to understand how deeply ingrained this Sabbath observance was in the Jewish psyche in Jesus' day. It was so serious that a strict Jew would not even defend his own life on the sabbath.
In the wars of the Maccabees, in between, historically, the Old and the New Testament, when there was a resistance broke out among the Jews, some of the Jewish rebels took refuge in a cave. The Syrian soldiers pursued them, and Josephus the Jewish historian tells that the Syrians give them a chance to surrender, but they would not surrender. 'So', Josephus says, 'they fought against them' - that's the Syrians against the Jews - 'on the sabbath day, and they burned them as they were in the caves, without resistance, without so much as stopping up the entrance of the caves. They refused to defend themselves on that day because they were not willing to break in upon the honour they owed to the sabbath, even in such distress, for our law requires that we rest in that day'. So you see how serious it was for the Lord, on the sabbath, to heal this man who was far from dying. That was their test case trap.
Now I want you to see in verses 3 and 4 how the Lord turned the tables. They give Him this test case trap, and He turns the tables on them. 'He saith unto the man which had the withered hand, Stand forth', verse 4, 'He saith unto the Pharisees and Scribes, Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill? But they held their peace'. Imagine it, this charged atmosphere, both tension and expectation. This is the amazing thing: these Pharisees knew that the Lord Jesus could heal this man, yet they would not believe in Him. How hard are their hearts? Now please note: Jesus made no attempt to avoid the trap. He could have, He could have said: 'Well, let's not make a big issue of this one, it's not a hill to die on yet, let's leave it till Monday, or Tuesday, or Wednesday, or Thursday, or Friday, or Sunday - let's leave it till then'. But He didn't, because He wanted to challenge them, He wanted to expose their legalistic traditions that were binding and destroying them.
He said to this man with the withered hand, 'Stand forth' - and the Greek literally means 'Arise into the midst'. In other words, 'Step where all can see you, all can see your awful predicament, all can see how these Pharisees are using you, imposing upon your predicament for their own ends. Stand into the midst that everyone can see Me healing you'. The Lord Jesus turned the tables on them by saying to them: 'Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? To save life, or to kill?'. Do you know what the Lord Jesus was doing? He was revealing their wickedness. Imagine this, and this is the whole point: they thought it was wrong of the Lord Jesus to perform a miracle of healing on the sabbath, but they didn't think it was wrong to plan the destruction of the Messiah on the sabbath! It's bad enough that they left this man with the withered hand to languish in his poverty of the flesh, when there was one in their midst who could heal him - but worse than that, they were plotting the death of the Son of God on the sabbath. They couldn't see it.
That's what He means when He says: 'Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil?' - they were doing evil. 'Is it lawful to save life?', that's what Christ was doing, 'Or to kill?', that's what they were doing. No wonder they couldn't answer, if they had replied they would have condemned themselves, so they said nothing. Because the Lord Jesus turned the tables on this test case trap, we see the outcome of their unbelief. Verse 5 says the Lord Jesus 'looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts'. In the original language the verb there for 'looked around', means He looked with a penetrating gaze, and yet there is a sense there, because of a preposition on the verb, that He looked around quickly like that. Can you picture the scene? He swiftly turned round with a glance, and yet at a glance He takes them all in and penetrates their very soul. He is angry, and it's not often we see the Lord Jesus angry in the gospel records. Yet, whilst He is angry, He has grief, grief for the hardness of their hearts. 'Grieved', and the participle there is in the present tense - and I'm not trying to blind you with all this linguistics, I'm not saying I know it all, I'm getting most of it from secondary sources - but the point is very clear when you see that this means that they were continuing to harden their hearts, there was a process here. The Lord's heart was grieved because of their unbelieving, unmerciful state of heart that was getting worse, and worse, and worse to the point of putting Him to death on a cross.
The Lord never became angry at the publicans and the sinners. Show me an occasion - it's interesting that, isn't it? He never became angry at them, but He did express anger towards the self-righteous Pharisees, the legalists. If you want to read the tirade that He spoke to them, look at Matthew 23 for His condemnation of them. Why was He so angry? Why was He so grieved? Because they would rather protect their religious traditions than see this poor man healed - that makes Jesus angry! After an embarrassed silence, the Saviour ordered the man to stretch out his hand, and as he did so full strength returned and the flesh was filled out again to normal size, and all the wrinkle and paralysis and palsy disappeared. This is the wonder of it all, none of them could have pointed the finger and said: 'You have worked on the sabbath day', do you know why? Because there were no visible means used, no implements, no bandages, no potions, all He did was speak a word!
He had them every time. Verse 6 says the Pharisees couldn't take it any more, they went out 'and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him'. They contacted the Herodians. Now I don't know whether you know or not, that the Herodians were the Pharisees' traditional enemies. They contacted their enemies, they got into a little unholy huddle, and made a pact that they would sort this guy out once and for all. Now please cast your mind back for a moment or two, this is the same group of Pharisees - 'Pharisee' meaning 'separatist' - who would have nothing to do with Gentiles, a man who didn't adhere to the law of Moses. The Herodians were not proper Jews, and they supported the rule of Herod, and they were continually coming in contact with the Romans and dealing with them, and living with them. You remember in a previous study that the Pharisees would have nothing to do with a tax collector to help them, because a tax collector was working for the Romans, and he was unclean even when he was a Jew - yet all of a sudden, to put a man to death, to put the Son of God to death, they did a deal with the same type of person! An unholy alliance to kill a man, yet they wouldn't make an alliance to help a man.
There's not only that irony, but the fantastic irony that all this was done on the sabbath: 'They went out straightway', on that day, 'and took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him'. Do you know what they were thinking, I think? Herod had put John the Baptist to death, perhaps his party would be equally successful in killing this Jesus! These enemies united together because of their common enemy, Jesus Christ. Can I say to you today that if we do not believe in the Lord Jesus, we will finally crucify Him. That was the outcome of their unbelief, it is always the outcome of unbelief, there is no 'no man's land'. You're either for Christ or you're against Christ. Maybe you're here, and you've never taken that step of faith to believe in the Lord Jesus as He is the Son of God, and the one who died for your sins, and promises you eternal life if you believe on Him. My friend, beware how the Pharisees rejected Him, and then their heart hardened to the very point of putting Him on a cross. Beware, lest you do the same.
But for all of us, we see in this account the great clash once more of these two ideals of spirituality - what are they? Law and grace. They are not compatible, they are completely opposing. We see these men whose religious existence was to obey rules, laws, regulations; and because Jesus and His disciples broke their laws and their rules, they were convinced, genuinely now, that this man Jesus was a bad man. They believed it in their heads and in their hearts, because they were intoxicated with their traditions! Like people today who believe that religion consists of going to church, of saying grace before meals, being a Presbyterian or Anglican, or Baptist or Brethren, or Catholic - that's as far as it goes for them. But they go to great lengths in carrying out external acts which are looked on as religious, and yet many of these people - even when they take the name of being fundamentalist Christians - would never ever put themselves out for anyone! When a man is in need, like this man, would they do anything to help a life like that? Many today, even who take the name of Christ, are devoid of sympathy - they don't want to sacrifice anything to help anyone. They are sincere in their religious orthodoxy, yet they are deaf to the cry of the needy, of the blind, of the naked, the hungry, the dying and the damned!
Someone put it well: 'If moral behaviour were simply following rules, we could program a computer to be moral' - is that not right? I'm not saying there aren't principles in the Christian life, of course there are - but the Christian life is that: life, life, life, eternal life! The Apostles preached this life - what do we have? Life or law? That life is found in grace, it's found in the love of God; and that love of God, when we receive it by faith, outflows in a love for mankind. To the Lord Jesus the most important thing in the world was not a correct performance of ritual, but a spontaneous answer to the cry of the human need.
The sabbath setup was an operation of Scribes and Pharisees - but can I say to all of us today: there is a satanic setup, and that is to get all of us, believers and unbelievers, tangled in a bondage of man-made laws that will squeeze the life of God right out of us. May I implore you, as Jesus did, to be daring enough to stand it in the face and, whatever the accusation, withstand it and be no more in a yoke of bondage, but live the life of the Spirit, in the law of the life of the Spirit in Christ Jesus which has set us free from the law of sin and death. Don't fall for Satan's trap.
We embrace the principles of the Scriptures. Don't think that I'm saying this morning that we don't follow what's written in this book! Far from it! But there's many men would add to this book, and many would give their interpretation of this book as infallible - do you know what that is? That is popery, that's what it is - and sometimes it's protestant popery. Let's stick to this book, let's preach it clear, let's believe it, and let's say to the Lord in our lives: 'Teach me Thy way'. Are we still people that believe that all we need is this book, and the Holy Spirit? Do we believe that? We sang last week: 'My faith has found a resting place, not in a form or creed'. Let's rest on Him by faith, and Him alone, as we say to Him prayerfully: 'Teach me Thy way, O Lord'.
Father, we pray that You would deliver us from having the letter of the law without the life of the Spirit. Oh God, what better are we than the Pharisees if we rest on our traditions, rather than on the word of God and the Spirit of God. Lord, get us back to basics, deliver us from those things that kill us and bind us, those things that are poisons. Help us to get into that promised Canaan land, where we realise all the blessings that are 'Yea and Amen' in the Lord Jesus. Give us that new wine that bursts the old skins, give us those new clothes that don't patch up the old, give us a feast and not a famine, feed us on Christ the Living Bread, and we shall be satisfied, and in turn go out and satisfy the hungry and the needy with that Bread that came down from heaven. Give us Jesus, Christ and Christ alone, in whose name we pray, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Evangelical Church in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the seventeenth recording in his 'Studies In Mark' series, entitled "The Sabbath Setup" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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