Studies in Mark’s Gospel

Religious Conflict

If we were to compare chapters 1 and 2 of Mark’s gospel, we would see an interesting contrast. Chapter 1 a chapter of  “the glory” while chapter 2 is the chapter of “opposition.” In fact, this chapter differs so much, that some commentators separate 2:1—3:6 from the surrounding chapters and suggest this section is a collection of incidents out of chronological order, which Mark has grouped together because they have a common theme: conflict with the religious leaders of the day.

There are a total five incidents which when taken together show the conflict that existed between Jesus and the established religious order of the day and also show the authority that Jesus exercised over both situations and the religious leaders.

As we study each incident, we should note that in each successive one, the struggle between the religious leaders and Jesus grows in intensity, to the point that by the time we reach the final incident in chapter 3, they are not only opposing Him, but plotting His death.

When we speak of Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders of His day, we are struck with a paradox: did not these religious leaders, who professed to love and worship God, want the same thing for their people as Jesus did? In other words, couldn’t these conflicts been avoided? Of course, they could not. Jesus preached love, they legalism; He God’s holy law, they law-burying traditionalism; He freedom, they bondage; He inner attitude, they outward act. These religious leaders, much like religious leaders of today, hated Jesus because to surrender to Him would mean surrendering their prestige and their public persona. This they could not do.

1. Conflict 1: Healing a paralytic, 2:1—12

In verse one, Mark says that Jesus had come “home” to Capernaum. Capernaum was Christ’s “home base” in the early days of His ministry. The “home” was probably the house of Peter and Andrew, referred to in 1:19. In reading this account, the actions of a number of people bear comment.

  • Jesus. Here, in this very small, one room Palestinian peasant’s house, Jesus was bringing His gospel to the people. He was preaching; this was His mission during His earthly ministry. Healing the sick was secondary, though to those whose bodies were healed it doubtless seemed to be the most important. Sickness of the soul is infinitely more serious than any physical ailment could ever be.
  • The guests. In light of the amazement caused by what Jesus had said and done earlier (1:21—34; 38—45), it is understandable why the house was full. Friends and family members of the disciples were there, neighbors who had heard about Jesus were there, those who were genuinely interested in the truth about Jesus were there, and many who were just plain curious gathered.
  • Religious leaders. Also gathered there were the Pharisees and doctors of the law, according to Luke’s account (Luke 5:17). These men had come from all over the area out of curiosity and also hoping to catch Jesus on some theological misstep.
  • The paralytic and his friends. This poor fellow wasn’t really interested in the teachings of Jesus; somehow he and his loyal friends sensed that Jesus was more than just a teacher; that Jesus could heal a paralyzed body.

All these people, from various walks of life, were crammed into that small house, listening to and watching Jesus, all for different reasons. Suddenly, into this crowded house, four men lowered their paralyzed friend down from a hole in the roof. It was a remarkable sign of their loyalty to their friend and they dedication to help him. It was also a sign of something else, according to Jesus—

When Jesus saw their faith. (verse 5)

The proof of faith is works. The persistence of these men proved they had faith. Jesus recognized this immediately, and He also recognized something else—

Son, your sins are forgiven. (verse 5)

The point is not whether sin caused this man’s affliction, but, rather, the reality that Jesus saw in this paralyzed man a greater need than the obvious physical one and commented on it. He was a sinner who needed forgiveness and that is what Jesus was about to do. Jesus never took sin lightly. He never dealt with a physical need without addressing the greater spiritual one. Because we are carnal by nature, we always seem to notice and remember the physical healings.

The so-called doctors of the Law, who knew nothing about grace and who denied the claims of Jesus to be the Son of the Father, debated within themselves—not out loud—what was Jesus was doing. They were filled with “religious prejudice” and condemned Jesus to death (Leviticus 24:15). It is interesting that these critics of Jesus are seen sitting, perhaps in seats of honor, while so many had to stand outside.

Jesus knew their inner most thoughts and confronted them directly. Surely these men, so well-versed in the law knew the words of the Psalmist—

The LORD knows the thoughts of man;
he knows that they are futile. (Psalm 94:11)

You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar. (Psalm 139:2)

As far as these religious leaders were concerned, they could no more heal the sick than forgive the sinner. Jesus could do both, however, and He chose to do the more important first. Jesus forgave the man’s sins, and then performs a healing miracle to make the inner spiritual reality—forgiveness of sins—obvious for all to see.

But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . . .” He said to the paralytic, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” (verses 10—11)

The gathered guests could not see into the man’s now-cleansed heart, but they could see a paralyzed man, who was carried in on a stretcher, get up and walk out, carrying that same stretcher! By means of this amazing physical miracle, Jesus proved the validity of His words of forgiveness by the power of His words of healing (Ralph Earl).

But he emphasis of the story is clearly on Christ’s authority to forgive sins. This is made clear in the Greek, where the literal translation of five reads-

Forgiven are your sins.

The order of the words places the emphasis on “forgiven.”

2. Conflict #2: Eating with sinners, 2:13—17

This second incident began innocently enough with the calling of another disciple, a man named Levi, also known as Matthew, writer of the first gospel. He was a Jew, but was employed by the Roman government to gather taxes from his people. Jesus had apparently passed this man’s tax collection booth before, and apparently Levi was somewhat familiar with Jesus, for the moment Jesus called him, Levi dropped what he was doing and followed Jesus. Luke’s account in 5:28 suggests that Levi, Matthew, gave up a lucrative business and easy life to become a follower of Jesus.

Tax collectors were despised in those days, as they are today, and no self-respecting Jew would ever willingly associate with one. Yet we see Jesus actually dining at this tax collector’s home! What is interesting about verses 15 is the arrangement of the words in the Greek. The phrase synanekainto to Iesou, “eating with Jesus,” suggests that Jesus was the host, not Levi, even though they were dining at Levi’s home! Lane thinks this is highly suggestive:

When this is understood the interest of the entire periscope centers on the significance of the Messiah eating with sinners. The specific reference in v. 17 to Jesus’ call of sinners to the Kingdom suggests that the basis of table-fellowship was messianic forgiveness, and the meal itself was an anticipation of the messianic banquet in heaven.

Jesus’ critics knew that Levi and his associates were dining with Jesus and thought that was a deplorable thing for Jesus to be doing. The Rabbis had a rule: “the disciples of the learned shall not recline at table in the company of ‘am ha-arec.That is a somewhat derogatory term, roughly translated means “people of the soil,” or “uneducated rabble.” But to such as these “people of soil” did Jesus come. This passage makes it clear that the call to salvation is an invitation full and free, and extended not to “righteous people,” that is, those who think they are righteous, but to those who are most unworthy and in desperate need. This is not to limit the gospel to only the “desperate.” In order for Jesus to share His call to salvation, there must be a recognition of need in those hearing it. Self-righteous people have no such recognition, but a sinner does. Hunter comments:

The new thing in Christianity is not the doctrine that God saves sinners. No Jew would have denied that. It is the assertion that God love and saves them as sinners.

3. Conflict #3: Fasting, 2:18—22

The law suggested only one fast in an entire year, on the Day of Atonement. However, over the centuries, many more fasts worked their way into Jewish religious tradition. Some would last a day, others a week or more. In this story, which is out of chronological order, there are two groups of disciples participating in a fast: John’s disciples (suggesting this event took place while John the Baptist was still alive) and the Pharisees. The latter group was probably observing their traditional biweekly fast. John’s followers were fasting, as some have surmised, because he was in prison at the time.

Regardless of the precise reasons, both groups saw fasting as an important, serious spiritual observance. Because of this, some wondered why Jesus’ disciples, and by implication, why He Himself was not fasting. If it was such a pious activity, shouldn’t this new spiritual teacher be practicing it?

Jesus answers their criticism with a parable. His followers had no need to fast, to demonstrate their mourning before God, because He, the Son of God, the great Source of all blessing, was with them. Now was the time for them to be rejoicing in His presence. To fast during a time of celebration or a time of great joy would be unthinkable. In the parable, Jesus is the Bridegroom, His disciples the guests. As long as He is with them they should rejoice. However, He will not always be with them in an earthly sense, and when He leaves, it will be the appropriate time for them to fast.

In verses 21—22, Jesus tells two shorter parables which bear on the idea of fasting and religious observances. In Jesus’ mind, mindless dedication to religious traditions, like fasting, was just as inappropriate as (1) fasting during a wedding feast, (2) pouring new wine into rotten, old wineskins, and (3) sewing a new patch on rotten old clothes. Those three things made absolutely no sense, just like it makes not sense (and is of no value) to participate blindly and mindlessly in tired religious observances.

4. Conflict #4: Working on the Sabbath, 2:23—28

Here is another event, probably out of chronological order, but grouped together with similar stories of conflicts Jesus had with religious leaders. This time, the conflict centers on something far more important that fasting in Judaism: keeping the Sabbath.

What the disciples did in verse 23 was completely allowable by law:

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)

What the Pharisees objected to was that they did this on the Sabbath, and doing this went against one of their 39 forbidden acts on the Sabbath: reaping. It seems ridiculous to us that just picking a few grains of wheat and rubbing them between the hands would have been considered “reaping,” but the charge leveled at Jesus through the disciples was a serious one, punishable by stoning.

In answer to this charge, Jesus countered that human needs outweighed the dictates of the law, and used an example from the Old Testament to support his argument, an incident taken from 1 Samuel 21:1—7). When God’s servants were in need, it was far more important to minister to them than to preserve punctiliously the order of the tabernacle. After all, people are more important to God than ordinances. Jesus declared that the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around.

It should be noted, however, that the Sabbath is to meet all of man’s needs: physical (rest), mental (learning the Word), and spiritual (corporate worship). Earl comments that “to ignore this law is only to prove its necessity.” It is essential that believers observe both the Sabbath and the Lord of the Sabbath, because failure to do so would eventually lead to the dissolution of the Church (Trueblood). Judah, with the Sabbath, survived the Exile, but Israel, without it, did not.

5. Conflict #5: Healing on the Sabbath, 3:1—6

This is last of a series of conflicts Jesus had with different religious leaders. This one takes place in a Synagogue on the Sabbath.

Jesus, like all His disciples and the early Church, attended Synagogue services on the Sabbath. Among those attending services this day was a poor man with a “shriveled hand.” Knowing Christ’s compassionate heart, the religious legalists watched our Lord closely; obviously they weren’t there for the religious service! The wording of verse 2 shows the extent of Jesus’ fame:

Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath.

Notice, it is not “could,” but “would” Jesus heal the man. Jesus was fully aware of the man’s problem, but also knew that He was being watched, and instead of ignoring the man or healing him in secret, Jesus boldly announces His intention and “calls out” His critics!

“Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (verse 4)

The Pharisees were dead silent; they would not debate Jesus. Rarely do we see Jesus angry, but here He was angry; He was righteously indignant—a righteous man in the presence of stark evil (Wessel). As He looked around at these men, His anger was intense by brief. But His “distress” was continuous; it was caused by the state of their sinful hearts. They simply refused to recognize who He really was and why He came. They were, in effect, more concerned with maintaining their religious status quo than to open their minds, and their hearts, to the reality that a new age was dawning: the age of the Kingdom of God.


In each case of conflict, the results were the same. On the positive, an individual was healed of some physical ailment or some human need was met, as in the case of the disciples picking the grain. On the negative, the tension between Jesus and the religious leaders became more and more palpable.

We see also in these five incidents the authority of Jesus on full display. There was nothing that could stop Jesus from accomplishing His mission and there was nothing that could stifle the power of Jesus, not a physical debilitation or a clever question. Jesus has the authority to heal sickness, cast out demons, reinterpret the Torah, lay down His life and raise it up again.

(c)  2009 WitzEnd

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