Judging from the crowds that flocked to Jesus in Mark chapter one, it may be easy to think that Jesus enjoyed the full support of those who came to hear Him speak. While Jesus was certainly held in high esteem among the general population of His day (at least until the time of His arrest), there were a number of important and influential individuals who did not support Jesus or His ministry- and Jesus will begin to encounter some resistance from those individuals beginning here in Mark chapter two.
Earlier, we read the account of a man who decided to spread the news regarding a miraculous healing he had received from Jesus despite Jesus’ stern warning not to do so…
“Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: ‘See that you don’t tell this to anyone…’ Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere” (Mark 1:43-45).
This new found notoriety helped set the stage for the opening verses of Mark chapter two…
“And again He entered Capernaum after some days, and it was heard that He was in the house. Immediately many gathered together, so that there was no longer room to receive them, not even near the door. And He preached the word to them” (Mark 2:1-2).
Regardless of what brought these people to Jesus, we’re told that He took advantage of this opportunity to communicate the Scriptures (or “preach the word”) to them. Now there is an old adage that tells us that religious beliefs (along with political views) should never be discussed with a group- and there is certainly no shortage of those who believe that the only proper place for “religion” is within the walls of a church building. However, Jesus’ example in the opening verses of Mark chapter two tells us something very different.
Notice that Jesus was just as comfortable speaking about the Word of God in a residential home as He was within the synagogue. This is an important distinction because its difficult to attach any real value to our spiritual beliefs if those beliefs are only expressed within the confines of a church building. After all, how much is “Christianity” really worth if someone stops being a Christian on the job, at school, on the field, or anywhere else. There is a word to describe those who are “religious” inside church but seek to avoid such appearances to the outside world- we commonly refer to such people as hypocrites.
“Many people had gathered. There was no room left, even in front of the door. Jesus was speaking God’s word to them” (Mark 2:2 GW).
In communicating God’s Word to this assembled group, Jesus provided an important example for both students and teachers of God’s Word today. You see, Jesus didn’t take this opportunity to discuss current events or politics or how to be a successful and happier person. Jesus didn’t sermonize about a few favorite subjects or talk about the principles that might help achieve some personal goal or ambition. Instead, Jesus simply communicated the Word of God to this assembly.
We can follow this good example today by seeking out those churches where the spiritual leadership is committed to teaching through the Bible in a systematic way. For instance, a church that reads through the Scriptures (as opposed to a general speaking approach that focuses on a weekly topic with a few supporting Biblical verses) is a church that will be exposed to every subject covered within God’s Word in the order and frequency that each subject occurs. This approach helps minimize doctrinal errors; it also helps minimize the tendency to focus on a few favorite subjects and avoid others.
While current events, general principles, or political statements may have some illustrative value, they should never serve to displace this basic communication of the Scriptures. Instead, Jesus provided us with the right approach in utilizing such topics…
“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.
Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them — do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish'” (Luke 13:1-5 NIV).
While Jesus incorporated a political action and a current event in this passage, neither formed the focal point of this message. Instead, He used these topics to communicate the Biblical need for repentance. A church that communicates the Scriptures in a way that can be easily understood, remembered, and applied in daily life is a church that is sure to be healthy, for as we’re told in Hebrews 4:12…
“…the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (NIV).
Law enforcement officials commonly use the term “breaking and entering” to describe the act of forcefully entering a residence without prior authorization. One of the earliest recorded instances of “breaking and entering” is actually found within the pages of the Scriptures. This break-in occurred in Mark chapter two where a man literally “dropped in” on Jesus during one of His teachings…
“Then they came to Him, bringing a paralytic who was carried by four men. And when they could not come near Him because of the crowd, they uncovered the roof where He was. So when they had broken through, they let down the bed on which the paralytic was lying” (Mark 2:3-4).
Unlike the peaked roofs that are often found on residential homes today, the roof of a typical home of Jesus’ day was usually more like the flat style of roofing that is common among modern day commercial buildings. These roofs were created by erecting four perimeter walls and then placing logs across the top of those walls to form rafters. Following this, the builders filled the gaps between the individual rafters with a combination of branches, earth, and thatch. When that process was complete, everything was sealed with a layer of clay to create a sturdy and watertight roof.
A conventional home of that time often included an exterior staircase that allowed the homeowner to gain access to the roof. This was an important accessory because a first-century roof served much the same purpose as a residential porch, balcony, or veranda might serve today. A homeowner might entertain his or her guests on the roof or simply relax there in the evening to enjoy a cool breeze after a hot day. Roofs were also useful for hanging laundry to dry and one might even sleep there if it was a particularly warm night.
So this explains how these men found their way onto the roof of this home and why they had to dig through or “uncover” it as we read above.In fact, they were so intent on bringing their paralyzed friend to Jesus that they cut through the clay layer, dug out the thatch and branches, moved the log rafters, and lowered the man down directly in front of Jesus.
Upon seeing these men in the process of creating an instant skylight, Jesus might have responded by saying, “You’re wrecking the house!” or,“You’ll have to go to the end of the line and wait your turn.” But Jesus’ actual response was probably not the one that they (or the others who observed this scene) may have anticipated.
“…they came to Him bringing a paralytic, carried by four men. Since they were not able to bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above where He was. And when they had broken through, they lowered the mat on which the paralytic was lying. Seeing their faith, Jesus told the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven'” (Mark 2:3-5 HCSB).
Imagine the scene that unfolded as these four men attempted to transport their paralyzed friend to Jesus. If you were in Jesus’ position, would you have appreciated the debris from a partial roof demolition falling upon you while you were trying to communicate God’s Word? Probably not, but notice that Jesus wasn’t angered or annoyed by this disruption. Instead, He chose to take note of their faith.
The necessity of faith in approaching God is a recurring theme throughout the Scriptures but what exactly is faith? One dictionary definition of the word “faith” tells us that faith is “a belief in or confident attitude toward God, involving commitment to His will for one’s life.” (1) The New Testament book of Hebrews says that ”… faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). The well-known Christian author and apologist Josh McDowell was once quoted as saying,“The value of the Christian faith is not in the one believing, but in the One being believed in… it doesn’t matter how much faith you have, but rather who is the object of your faith.”
Faith is the confident belief that God is who He says He is and will do what He says He will do. Hebrews 11:6 later goes on to say, “… without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” It’s also significant to note that Jesus commended their faith in this passage- not only the faith of the paralyzed man, but the faith of those who brought him as well.
So Jesus’ response to this act of faith was to say, “My son, your sins are forgiven” (GNB). While this man certainly must have appreciated Jesus’ expression of forgiveness, his four friends probably didn’t intend to haul him all the way to this home, extend the physical effort necessary to bring him to the housetop, disassemble the roof, and lower him down on ropes just to have his sins forgiven. Clearly this man and his friends were seeking a miraculous healing for his physical condition-and we’ll consider the rationale behind Jesus’ response next.
(1) Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers
“When Jesus saw how much faith they had, he said to the paralyzed man, ‘Young man, your sins are forgiven'” (Mark 2:5 ERV).
Why would Jesus respond with an expression of forgiveness when this clear physical need existed right before Him? Well, the answer is that Jesus could see something that others could not. While everyone could see that this paralyzed man wanted to regain the use of his limbs, Jesus knew that his primary need involved the forgiveness of those sins that had separated him from his Creator.
While this was good news for the paralyzed man who had been brought to Jesus, there were some others who did not respond quite so positively…
“And some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, ‘Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?'” (Mark 2:6-7).
As mentioned earlier, the “scribes” helped to constitute the religious establishment of Jesus’ day. These were the men who studied the Scriptures and served as the copyists, editors, and teachers of the law. Because of this, the general population looked to these men to serve as the interpreters of the Law and it’s application. It’s likely that these men were either local scribes or representatives of a group that had been given the responsibility to evaluate and assess this new spiritual leader from Galilee named Jesus.
But one interesting detail regarding these men doesn’t involve who they were but where they were. You see, we’re told that “…there were certain of the scribes sitting there” (RV emphasis added) while this paralyzed man had been lowered from the roof. Since Mark has already reported the overflow conditions within this home (so much so that no one could even get through the door), this means that these leaders held the best seating position while those who really needed help were unable to get in to see Jesus at all.
While it’s possible that these men had arrived well before the crowds, its also possible that they secured the “best seats in the house” as a result of their social rank, a practice that later drew criticism from Jesus…
“Beware of the teachers of the law… They love to have the most important seats in the synagogues and at feasts. But they cheat widows and steal their houses and then try to make themselves look good by saying long prayers. They will receive a greater punishment” (Mark 12:39-40 NCV).
Romans 12:3 reminds us to “Give preference to one another in honor.” Privilege, rank, and status should never prohibit others from seeing Jesus.
“Some teachers of the Law who were sitting there thought to themselves, ‘How does he dare talk like this? This is blasphemy! God is the only one who can forgive sins!'” (Mark 2:6-7 GNB).
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day will raise a much more blasphemous accusation against Him in the following chapter of Mark’s Gospel but for now, let’s focus on the indictment leveled against Jesus in the passage quoted above. First, the word “blasphemy” means “to speak contemptuously of God or of sacred things.” (1) Blasphemy involves the act of speaking and/or living in a way that shows complete disrespect for God. A blasphemous person would be someone who despises God in the things that he or she says and demonstrates contempt for Him through his or her chosen lifestyle.
Now the teachers of the law who came to see Jesus did not necessarily do the wrong thing in examining Jesus or His teachings. They also correctly identified the fact that only God could forgive sins. Their real mistake (as we’ll see later) can be found in their complete refusal to accept the possibility that Jesus was who He said He was despite the evidence that He was willing to provide…
“But immediately, when Jesus perceived in His spirit that they reasoned thus within themselves, He said to them, ‘Why do you reason about these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins’—He said to the paralytic, ‘I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house'” (Mark 2:8-11).
The Living Bible paraphrase of this passage quotes Jesus as saying, “‘I, the Messiah, have the authority on earth to forgive sins. But talk is cheap-anybody could say that. So I’ll prove it to you by healing this man.'” This leads us to one of the most impressive aspects of this passage- the fact that Jesus was willing to take the burden of proof upon Himself. He first dealt with the foundational cause of this man’s condition by announcing, “your sins are forgiven.” He then addressed the effect: “take up your bed and go on home.”
If Jesus really had the power to heal this man and forgive his sins, then the bed that carried the man would soon be replaced by the man who carried the bed.
(1) Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words © 1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers
“The Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins. But how can I prove this to you? Maybe you are thinking it was easy for me to say to the crippled man, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ There’s no proof it really happened. But what if I say to the man, ‘Stand up. Take your mat and walk’? Then you will be able to see if I really have this power or not.”
So Jesus said to the paralyzed man, ‘I tell you, stand up. Take your mat and go home.’ Immediately the paralyzed man stood up. He picked up his mat and walked out of the room. Everyone could see him. They were amazed and praised God. They said, ‘This is the most amazing thing we have ever seen!'” (Mark 2:9-12 ERV).
Imagine if you had lost the use of your arms and/or legs for a period of time. If you were suddenly able to regain the use of those limbs, how long do you think it would take before you could begin to reuse them normally again? If you’re like most people, the chances are pretty good that you would first require extensive physical therapy, exercise, and a period of rehabilitation in order to learn to reuse your arms and/or legs again. But here in this passage, notice that Jesus not only provided this previously disabled man with the use of his limbs, but the physical and neurological ability to immediately use them again as well.
The public response to this healing is also important to notice. You see, this passage tells us that this miracle, “…amazed everyone and they praised God.” A secondary result (and perhaps an equally important one), is that the people who saw this happen were inspired to praise and honor God. This example reminds us that a good, God-honoring leader will always inspire others to glorify God.
This passage demonstrates how we can tell the difference between good teachers and false teachers, good ministers and poor ministers, and leaders who are genuine and sincere about God and those who are not. Remember that a God-honoring teacher will follow Jesus’ example and place the focus on God and His Word. A teacher who doesn’t seek to honor God will place the focus on him or herself, or something else. A good, God-honoring teacher will inspire others to glorify God just as Jesus did here.
As for the religious leaders who witnessed this healing, the choice was clear. They could choose accept the legitimacy of these God-given miracles (and thus validate Jesus’ message) or attempt to substitute some other explanation.
“Then He went out again by the sea; and all the multitude came to Him, and He taught them. As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ So he arose and followed Him” (Mark 2:13-14).
In Jesus’ day, the Roman government held administrative authority over the nation of Israel. This meant that every citizen living within Israel at that time received a tax assessment from the Roman government. To assist in the collection of these taxes, the Romans employed various individuals from among the members of the general population. Levi was one such person working in the Capernaum region under the authority of the Roman government.
A tax collector usually operated from within a booth or kiosk and it was Levi’s job to collect the fees associated with the transportation of goods to or from that area. As one source explains, “There was a tax booth in Capernaum, which was on the trade route from Damascus to Galilee and the Mediterranean. The “taxes” were collected on produce and goods brought into the area for sale, and were a sort of ‘sales tax’ paid by the seller…” (1)
A tax collector of that time generally did not receive a salary or commission in exchange for his services. Instead, a tax collector like Levi assessed a tax rate that was higher than what was actually required. He would then turn the correct amount over to the government and keep the rest as his profit. Because of this, the tax collectors were despised among the members of the general population and were held in the same regard as prostitutes and other sinners. A Jewish person serving as a tax collector during that time was seen as an outcast from society; he could not give testimony in court, nor would he be allowed to participate in any activities related to the synagogue or Jewish social life in general.
Because of this, Levi was probably not the most popular choice to be Jesus’ disciple. This may help explain why Levi is later identified as Matthew (a name that means “gift of God”), the same person who authored the gospel that bears his name. As was the case with Simon, Andrew, James, and John, Jesus’ invitation for Levi to “follow me” represented a call to accept a student-teacher relationship, and Jesus’ willingness to accept a man who was worthless and contemptible in the eyes of others tells us much about His character and those He is willing to accept as His disciples.
(1) Mark 2:14 Net Bible https://net.bible.org/#!bible/Mark+2:14
“Now it happened, as (Jesus) was dining in Levi’s house, that many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him. And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, ‘How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?'” (Mark 2:15-16).
So Levi opened his home for a reception with a guest list that included Jesus along with his (now former) colleagues and associates. Since Levi had earlier accepted Jesus’ request to become His disciple, it’s possible that Levi arranged this dinner as a sort of farewell to the life and friends he was leaving behind. Since the tax collectors were largely ostracized from society during that time, this probably meant that Levi was leaving the only friends he had in order to follow Jesus.
The New American Standard version of Mark 2:15 begins this passage by saying, “…it happened that (Jesus) was reclining at the table in his house.” This translation helps provide us with some insight into the first century customs of eating and drinking that Jesus likely observed during this dinner party. You see, the usual practice when taking a meal in Jesus’ day was to sit on the floor (or a small couch) and then recline back upon several cushions. As a number of people were reclining on the same couch, each would overlap the person next to him with his head resting near his neighbor’s shoulder. It was also typical to arrange the couches in a “U” shape, with one side left open so the dishes could be brought and removed.
This made for a very casual style of dining and up to this point, there was nothing about this reception that was out of the ordinary- that is, until the religious establishment began to question Jesus’ disciples about those who were in attendance. In doing so, these religious leaders used the term “sinners,” a general term that was used to identify morally unreliable people. One commentary tells us, “It is probable that the “sinners” whom Levi invited were so called not on the ground of their being notoriously bad characters… but on the strength their not being in the habit of studying and practicing ‘the tradition of the elders’ …on which account they were despised…” (1)
While the representatives of the religious establishment might have come to hear what Jesus had to say, they weren’t in a position to receive anything from Him because they couldn’t get past the people He associated with. We’ll see how Jesus responded to this question next.
(1) New International Bible Commentary
“And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’
And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners'” (Mark 2:15-17).
These verses introduce us to a group of men known as the Pharisees, a well known religious party of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees were perhaps best known for their strict adherence to the letter of the Old Testament Law, especially when it came to things like tithing and the ceremonial aspects of the law such as washing and handling food. The word Pharisee means, “separated one” and while the Pharisees carefully observed the Law as far as appearances went,we’ll soon see that they were actually far from God.
One way in which the Pharisees acted on the meaning of their name was in avoiding contact with the disreputable types of individuals that Jesus happened to be dining with- and sure enough, Jesus’ disciples were asked,“Why does he eat with such people?” (GNB). In some respects, this may seem like a legitimate question, for its been said that a person can often be identified by the company that he or she keeps. Then there is the Biblical principle found within the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians that tells us, “Bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33). So what are we to make of these apparent contradictions?
Well, Jesus’ response indicated that while He was willing to associate with everyone, He did not necessarily endorse or promote the lifestyles of those He interacted with. Instead, Jesus equated the spiritual condition of such individuals with those who were in need of real medical assistance. While these religious leaders operated under the false impression that they had no need of spiritual help, the guests at Levi’s dinner party probably had no such illusions. A physician can only assist those who accept their need for medical help and a person who refuses to recognize, accept, and seek treatment for an illness is unlikely to ever receive the proper treatment.
So Jesus was not condoning, supporting, or endorsing a sinful lifestyle by dining with these guests. Instead, He assumed a responsibility for ministering to those who were in need of help.
“The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were fasting. Then they came and said to Him, ‘Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?'” (Mark 2:18).
This passage references the practice of “fasting,” or the voluntary act of going without food, water, and/or other wants or needs for a period of time. The intent behind the Biblical concept of fasting usually involved a desire to establish an attitude of humilty and reverence towards God. This was achieved by placing God ahead of other legitimate needs like eating or drinking (see Ezra 8:21 for an example). In other instances, people fasted to reflect sadness (1 Samuel 31:11-13), repentance (Jonah 3:5), or a desire for God’s direction (Esther 4:16).
There were different kinds of Biblical fasts as well. For example, people fasted from eating completely (Ezra 10:5-6) or partially (Daniel 10:2-3). Fasts could last for a day (Judges 20:26), a week (1 Samuel 31:13) or even as long as 40 days (as in the case of both Moses and Jesus). In most cases, Biblical fasting also included a strong emphasis on prayer. However, the Bible also notes God’s great displeasure with those who fasted with the wrong attitude. For example, Jesus once rebuked the Pharisees for their hypocrisy in drawing attention to the fact that they were fasting (see Matthew 6:16-18 for the story).
A similar incident accurred in the Old Testament where the prophet Isaiah recorded the comments of those who were upset over God’s seeming disinterest in the fact that they were fasting. In speaking through Isaiah, God explained why He took no notice of them- their fasting meant nothing as long as their ungodly attitudes remained. He then went on to describe the kind of fasting that He really was looking for…
“No, the kind of fast I want is that you stop oppressing those who work for you and treat them fairly and give them what they earn. I want you to share your food with the hungry and bring right into your own homes those who are helpless, poor, and destitute. Clothe those who are cold, and don’t hide from relatives who need your help” (Isaiah 58:6-7 TLB).
When it comes to the idea of fasting, the real question is “why am I fasting?” Fasting can be a worthwhile spiritual discipline if it is done with the right attitude for the right reasons. We should also keep in mind that it may be medically unwise for certain people to fast so this should also be taken into consideration as well. The best approach is to prayerfully seek God’s direction when considering a fast.
“Once when John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, some people came to Jesus and asked, ‘Why don’t your disciples fast like John’s disciples and the Pharisees do?’ Jesus replied, ‘Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. They can’t fast while the groom is with them. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast'” (Mark 2:18-20 NLT).
As is often the case today, the weddings of Jesus’ day were very big affairs. The bride and groom would dress in their finest clothes and be joined by a wedding party consisting of what we might call “bridesmaids” and “groomsmen” today. However, one difference from most modern day weddings is the fact that the groom would usually leave his home to meet and escort his future wife from her parent’s house. Then the entire wedding party and their friends would set out as a group to the couple’s new home.
When they arrived, the marriage ceremony would begin. The bride and groom would stand before a priest and formally accept the marriage agreement joining them together as husband and wife. The priest would ask for God’s blessing upon the couple and then the wedding feast would begin. This wedding feast was something like the wedding reception that often follows a marriage ceremony today and featured lots of singing, dancing, eating, drinking, and so forth. Although most wedding receptions last for only a few hours today, the wedding feasts of those days could go on for a week or even more.
This imagery provided the support for Jesus’ response to those who questioned Him on the practice of fasting. In effect, Jesus compared Himself to the groom at a wedding celebration. John the Baptist also used a similar illustration to refer to himself as a member of the groom’s wedding party in referring to Jesus (see John 3:28-29). While the groom was in attendance, there was cause for the type of celebration commonly seen at a wedding- and just as it would have been inappropriate to abstain from celebrating with the groom during his wedding, so it was also inappropriate to fast while Jesus was present with His disciples.
However, Jesus also added an ominous hint of what was to come: “But the day will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast” (GNB). This is Jesus’ very first allusion to His eventual death and tells us that He was fully aware of what was to come for Him. Fasting would be appropriate in that period following Jesus’ death, but that time had not yet arrived.
“‘No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; or else the new piece pulls away from the old, and the tear is made worse. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine bursts the wineskins, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins” (Mark 2:21-22).
Of the two illustrations used by Jesus in this passage, one is probably familiar to 21st century readers and another is likely to be much less so. For example, anyone who has purchased an article of clothing probably knows that certain materials tend to shrink after they’ve been washed once or twice. Unless a material has been previously washed or “pre-shrunk,” it usually helps to anticipate for shrinkage when making a clothing purchase.
While this familiar illustration needs little explanation, “wineskins” may represent something much less familiar in our modern day age of plastic, glass, and aluminum containers. In Jesus’ day, wineskins were used as containment vessels for alcohol or other liquids. As the name implies, a wineskin was created by first skinning an animal (typically a goat) in a manner that would allow it to be used as a type of container. The skin would then be processed into a type of leather bag that was suitable for storing wine. When new, the resulting leather retained an elastic quality that allowed for expansion during the fermentation process. However, older skins that had reached their maximum elasticity would burst under the pressure of the gasses released during fermentation.
Since the water quality of the first century was often questionable, wine (or wine mixed with water) was often considered safer to drink. That made wine a very important commodity in the days of the first century and much too valuable to waste. However, these illustrations represented more than just good, practical pieces of advice- they also represented an important spiritual reality for those who were willing to listen.
You see, Jesus was not attempting to patch up an old religious system nor was He attempting to fill something spiritually old with something new. The new covenant that Jesus was about to initiate was not just a fulfillment of the Old Testament law but something fresh, something that could not be contained within the existing rigid, legalistic forms. As one commentator says, this “…new and internal gospel of repentance from and forgiveness of sin could not be connected to or contained in the old and external traditions of self-righteousness and ritual.” (1) From a human perspective, this new covenant remains forever new as it is made known in each succeeding culture and offers a fresh start for every new generation.
(1) MacArthur, J. (2006; 2008). MacArthur Study Bible NASB (Mk 2:21). Thomas Nelson Publishers; Nashville, TN.
“Now it happened that He went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain. And the Pharisees said to Him, ‘Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?'” (Mark 2:23-24).
While large roads or thoroughfares existed in Jesus’ day, there were few secondary or tertiary roads as we know them today. Once someone left a main road, he or she often had to travel through pastures or along footpaths in order to reach their final destination. Since most towns and villages were surrounded by farmlands or vineyards during that time, this often meant traveling through fields growing with wheat, barley, or other types of cereal grains.
The Old Testament Law that governed the first century Israelite economy allowed travelers to eat the grain growing within these fields with one exception:“If you enter your neighbor’s grainfield, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to his standing grain” (Deuteronomy 23:25 NIV). In other words, a traveler could pick and eat the individual kernels if he or she was hungry, but were not permitted to use a tool or other implement to harvest grain from a neighboring field. Since there were no such things as restaurants or other places to eat while on a journey during that time, this represented a real blessing for a hungry traveler.
However, this was not the contention of the religious leaders who questioned Jesus about the actions of His disciples. Instead, their objection was based on another portion of the Old Testament Law: “Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest” (Exodus 34:21 NIV). While the Old Testament law prohibited working on the Sabbath, it contained no “fine print” to precisely define what actually constituted “labor.” The Law did provide some general guidelines that prohibited the kind of work necessary for things like cooking and heating (Exodus 35:3) or the act of gathering wood (Numbers 15:32-36). Other portions of the Old Testament identified different types of prohibited work on the Sabbath like hauling loads (Jeremiah 17:21-22) or conducting business operations (Nehemiah 10:31).
Since picking grain was technically interpreted by the Pharisees as “reaping,” these leaders saw this act as a violation of their interpretation of Scriptures. But as we’ll see, it’s one thing to be involved in violating a Scriptural tenet and something quite different to be in violation of someone’s interpretation of the Scriptures.
“Now it happened that He went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain. And the Pharisees said to Him, ‘Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’
But He said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?'” (Mark 2:23-26).
By the first century A.D., Israel’s religious leadership had developed an extensive list of traditional regulations associated with the Old Testament Law. One such tradition involved the act of picking individual kernels of grain and eating them during the Sabbath. Since this act required someone to harvest each kernel and separate the outer husk (also known as “winnowing”), Jesus’ disciples were engaging in “work” according to the view of these religious leaders. The problem was that work was strictly prohibited on the Sabbath according to the Old Testament Law found in Exodus 34:21.
Now before we continue, we should stop to remember that Jesus and His disciples were in the act of traveling between (or alongside) various rows of wheat, barley, or other sorts of grain during the time that this exchange took place. Notice that even though Jesus was not publicly teaching or speaking during this time, the members of the religious elite were somehow following along closely enough to identify and challenge Him on this alleged violation of the Law.
This may be the first indication that these religious leaders were actively engaged in the act of “opposition research” or an attempt to uncover anything that might prove useful in bringing an accusation against Jesus. Unfortunately, that agenda will become much more obvious and transparent as we move further into Mark’s Gospel.
In any event, Jesus responded by using His knowledge of the Scriptures to identify an error in their accusation by using the account of David as found in 1 Samuel 21:1-6. This passage of Scripture records some of David’s activities while he was on the run from King Saul. During that time, David met with a priest and requested something to eat. The priest had nothing to offer David except for some consecrated bread that was lawful only for priests to eat and gave it to him.
While this account may not seem to hold a great deal of application in this situation, we’ll see how Jesus used this passage to provide support for His disciples next.
“And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?’ And he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath'” (Mark 2:25-28 ESV).
In responding to the accusation made against His disciples, Jesus reminded these religious leaders of a principle established through the actions of David in 1 Samuel 21:1-6.
Even though David clearly breached the letter of the Old Testament Law by eating the bread that was only permitted for the priests to eat, God did not condemn him for doing so. This tells us that human need may be considered as a legitimate factor in the spiritual decision making process. In cases where genuine human need exists, David’s example indicates that God has allowed for that need to have priority over the ceremonial or ritual aspects of the Law. Besides, if David had not been rebuked for breaking the actual Law in this instance, how then could Jesus’ disciples be condemned for simply violating the Pharisees’ subjective interpretation of that Law?
However, this is not to say that human need automatically outweighs God’s Law in every instance. For example, if we were to say that human need always takes priority over God’s Law, then anything that might possibly be identified as a “need” (legitimately or otherwise) could theoretically be used to free people from any responsibility to obey God’s Word at all. A better guiding principle in these instances can be found in the words of Hosea 6:6: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (NIV).
Jesus then went on to provide a more accurate understanding of the Sabbath’s function: “People were not made for the good of the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made for the good of people” (CEV). In other words, the Sabbath was created for the benefit of humanity, not the other way around. It was designed to provide rest and refreshment, not an imposition or an end in itself. Unfortunately, these religious leaders had turned something good into a burden. Regardless of how the Sabbath’s use was interpreted by others, Jesus, as Lord, had the final say as to what was appropriate and inappropriate on that day.
“But (Jesus) said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread…” (Mark 2:25-26).
The “showbread” mentioned here referred to the twelve loaves of bread that were placed before the Lord, first within the Tabernacle and then later within the Temple. Each loaf was replaced with fresh bread on a weekly basis (see Leviticus 24:5-9). Whenever the new bread was ready for placement, the old loaves were removed and given to the priests to eat.
Now Jesus’ reference to this incident may not seem very controversial unless you happen to examine the Old Testament account that He speaks about in the verses quoted above. That portion of Scripture is 1 Samuel 21:1-6 and one section of that passage tells us this…
“David answered Ahimelech the priest, ‘The king gave me a mission, but he told me, ‘Don’t let anyone know anything about the mission I’m sending you on or what I have ordered you to do.’ I have stationed my young men at a certain place. Now what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread or whatever can be found'” (1 Samuel 21:2-3 HCSB).
While Jesus referred to a priest named Abiathar, notice that the Old Testament report of this incident actually mentions a different priest named Ahimelech. So how can we account for this apparent discrepancy? Well, one commentator provides us with the answer…
“First Samuel is correct in stating that the high priest was Ahimelech. On the other hand neither was Jesus wrong. When we take a closer look at Christ’s words we notice that He used the phrase “in the days of Abiathar” (v. 26) which does not necessarily imply that Abiathar was high priest at the time David ate the bread. After David met Ahimelech and ate the bread, King Saul had Ahimelech killed (1 Sam. 22:17–19). Abiathar escaped and went to David (v. 20) and later took the place of the high priest.
So even though Abiathar was made high priest after David ate the bread, it is still correct to speak in this manner. After all, Abiathar was alive when David did this, and soon following he became the high priest after his father’s death. Thus, it was during the time of Abiathar, but not during his tenure in office.” (1)
(1) Geisler, N. L., & Howe, T. A. (1992). When critics ask : A popular handbook on Bible difficulties (370). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.