Mark 3: 1 – 6 Jesus heals on the Sabbath

Mark 3: 1 – 6 Jesus heals on the Sabbath

Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shrivelled hand was there. 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. Jesus said to the man with the shrivelled hand, ‘Stand up in front of everyone.’

Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent.

He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.

*       *       *

At the heart of this passage is the question, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’

At the time of this story there was no such thing as a Christian, or a Christian church. Both Jesus and the Pharisees were Jews, following Judaism and subject to Jewish law. Both Jesus and the Pharisees agreed that the Sabbath should be kept holy; this was one of the fundamental laws given to the Jews by God at Mount Sinai.

‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.’ (Exodus 20:8)

The law is quite clear; indeed, it is detailed and comprehensive in its scope. In a society under Jewish law nobody, but nobody, was supposed to work on the Sabbath.

But what was Jesus’ view? Here, in the synagogue, on the Sabbath, was a man with a withered arm. Jesus seized the opportunity, and asked the Pharisees:

‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’

The Pharisees said nothing.

Jesus’ question was not merely rhetorical. He wanted an answer. When the Pharisees remained silent, Mark tells us that Jesus was ‘deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts.’

But the Pharisees remained silent, and so Jesus gave his own answer to the question he had posed. He healed the man, then and there, and by doing so he made it abundantly clear that this law must not be viewed as an absolute.

Furthermore, unlike in Mark 2: 23 – 28, this was not an appeal to Jesus’ own authority as Son of Man. He has posed the question to the Pharisees. ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ He expected an answer; more, he very much wanted an answer. He expected the Pharisees to work out for themselves that the law had to be applied humanely.

Jesus had answered the question. More than that, he had validated the answer by the miraculous healing of the man with a withered arm. Were the Pharisees convinced?

No, they weren’t. Quite the opposite.

Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.

The only way I can understand the actions of the Pharisees is that their faulty understanding of the Sabbath blinded them to the truth Jesus was trying to show them. Indeed, the challenge to their preconceptions was so great that they plotted to destroy Jesus.

Just as Jesus expected the Pharisees to apply the law humanely, so he expects us to do the same. Just as Jesus could set aside one of the ten commandments when it needlessly prevented a good action, so can we.

Just as the Pharisees were blinded to the truth by their prejudices, so can we be.

Are there any issues where my prejudices blind me to God’s truth?

‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’

We know what Jesus thought.

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Please help me to take your law very seriously. At the same time, please help me to understand when your will takes me outside the guidance of your law.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

Mark 2: 23 – 28 Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath

Mark 2: 23 – 28 Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the cornfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some ears of corn. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?’

He answered, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.’

Then 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.’

*       *       *

At first sight, this seems a rather trivial incident, and yet it is recorded in all three of the synoptic gospels. Why do they tell us about this action of Jesus?

Let’s look at the context.

We’ve read in Mark 2: 1 – 12 how Jesus heals a paralysed man, using the words, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

In Mark 2: 13 – 17, Jesus calls Levi the tax collector to be a disciple, and he eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners.

In Mark 2: 18 – 22 Jesus is challenged by Pharisees about the fact that his disciples weren’t fasting like the disciples of John the Baptist. We understood Jesus’ answer, the parable of the new wine into old wineskins, as meaning that the Pharisees, steeped in Mosaic Law, were unable to accept the new teaching of Jesus.

Taking a look beyond today’s passage, at Mark 3: 1 – 6, we see Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath. He does so in the synagogue, and directly challenges the Pharisees to say whether healing on the Sabbath is legitimate. The Pharisees’ stay silent. Their response is behind closed doors; they conspire with the Herodians to kill Jesus.

Today’s passage, then, is part of Mark’s recounting of how the teaching of Jesus gradually caused the Pharisees to be hostile.

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the cornfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some ears of corn. Mark doesn’t tell us whether they were hungry or not, and neither does Luke, in the parallel passage (Luke 6: 1 – 5). Matthew, however, writes “His disciples were hungry…” (Matthew 12: 1 – 8). It seems very reasonable that the disciples might be hungry. They were trusting in God’s provision for an itinerant ministry, and sometimes, I’m sure, they went hungry. It won’t have been every day they were eating with tax collectors and sinners!

The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?’

Picking somebody else’s corn wasn’t against the law, provided you only used your hand and not a scythe. What the disciples were doing was unlawful because their action broke the Sabbath. In a legal sense, the Pharisees were undoubtedly right. Keeping the Sabbath holy – set apart for God – was one of the ten commandments. It was one of the ways in which followers of Judaism differentiated themselves from the surrounding nations. It was fundamental.

Jesus defends the actions of his followers in two ways.

Firstly, he points to the example of David. David had been forced to flee from Saul, and he and his companions needed food. He went to the High Priest and persuaded him to give him the showbread. This had been consecrated to God, and should only have been eaten by the priests. The High Priest checked with David that his companions were ritually clean, and then allowed him to take the bread. (1 Samuel 21: 2 – 7). In making this defence, Jesus is making a claim that he is equal, or more than equal, to David, who was the greatest king the Jews had ever had.

That’s quite a claim, but the second defence of his disciples’ actions is even more startling.

Then 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.’

This amounts to a statement by Jesus that he has the authority to interpret when it is God’s will that the law about keeping the Sabbath may be set aside. Furthermore, he uses the form of words ‘Son of Man’, with the implication that he himself is that ‘Son of Man’.

And here we have the significance of the passage. Jesus is saying, implicitly, that he is the successor to King David, and uniquely close to God. In fact, he is presenting himself as God’s Messiah. While the statement is not blatant enough to bring an immediate charge of blasphemy from the religious establishment, the Pharisees would have understood what Jesus was hinting – and where his claims were heading.

The nature of Jesus is making itself known, and the anger of his opponents is rising.

How do I respond to this revelation? Do I accept that Jesus is more than a healer and teacher? Do I accept that he is God’s Messiah? Because if it’s true, I must acknowledge him as my Lord – and that means obeying him.

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you for Jesus, the Messiah. He is my Lord. Please help me to obey him.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

Mark 2: 18 – 22 Jesus questioned about fasting

Mark 2: 18 – 22 Jesus questioned about fasting

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, ‘How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?’

Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.

‘No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wine skins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.’

*       *       *

The first part of this passage seems straightforward enough. The presence of Jesus on earth is a great cause for joy. Just like a wedding, it promises a new start, leading on to new life. When the bridegroom is with his friends, it would be unreasonable to expect them to fast.

But what about the next part of the passage?

The ‘traditional’ interpretation that I had been taught was that the new garment and the new wine represented the new religion of Christianity, full of the tumultuous life of the Holy Spirit. If you tried to graft bits of this new faith onto the old faith of Judaism both would be spoiled beyond repair.

However, if we look at why Jesus told the parables, we find that the metaphors are back-to-front. He’s telling the parables to rebut the questioners who are suggesting that fasting is necessary. That would be a patch from the old garment of Judaism onto the new faith of Christianity.

In fact, surely the whole premise of the interpretation is wrong? Jesus wasn’t preaching a new religion; he was solidly grounded in Judaism. St Mark, although he was writing his gospel for Gentiles as well as Jews, wasn’t setting out to found a new church. On the contrary, the early church was very Jewish in its teaching. Even after Pentecost the believers persisted with temple worship at the heart of their lives (see, for example, Acts 2:46 and Acts 3:1)

So, why did Jesus choose those particular metaphors to rebut the Pharisees?

Well, as I’ve said before, this blog is a record of how Jesus has been leading me to be closer to him.

I came across this difficulty first when I was studying St Luke’s gospel. I prayed and asked Jesus what the passage meant, and he led me to this website.

https://www.bethimmanuel.org/articles/new-wine-and-old-wineskins-parable-luke-536-39-re-examined

To understand it properly, I suggest you read the whole article; it’s well worth it.

The wider context of the passage in Mark is that the Pharisees are very interested in the ministry of Jesus. At this point in Jesus’ ministry, they are not necessarily antagonistic.

However, Jesus was not recruiting any of them as disciples. He was choosing fishermen and tax collectors, people whose knowledge of the law and the scriptures was elementary. They would have learned the scripture by rote, but would have learned little in the way of sophisticated exposition of its meaning.

And the Pharisees express their feelings by questioning why Jesus’ disciples don’t fast. They’re interested in having an answer, sure, but what they’re really asking is, “Why are you overlooking us, with our education and our experience in understanding the Law and the Prophets? Why are you choosing the unlearned and sinners as your disciples?”

It was to these Pharisees and teachers that Jesus told the parables, and they are parables about people. The old garment is a man who has been trained in the old way of thinking about the scriptures. He will not be receptive to new teaching – the patch of unshrunk cloth. Similarly, the old wineskin is a man who has been thoroughly schooled in the old understanding. He will reject and contradict the new ideas. Jesus is making the point that it is precisely because the Pharisees and teachers of the law are highly trained that they would be unsuitable as his disciples.

There is a lesson especially for me in this. Jesus can speak to me through anybody at all, whether they are highly educated or with very little learning. The truth about Jesus may be passed on by anybody who loves him. I must listen with an open heart.

It is vitally important that I listen to the Holy Spirit, and that means being open to God’s love, and to his forgiveness.

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you for calling me to serve you. Thank you for your continuing renewal of my spiritual life. Thank you for your Holy Spirit’s presence in my life. Thank you for the presence of Jesus with me.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

Mark 2: 13 – 17 Jesus calls Levi and eats with sinners

Mark 2: 13 – 17 Jesus calls Levi and eats with sinners

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’

On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’

*       *       *

It took a certain sort of man to be a tax collector in 1st century Palestine. You could make money, sure, you could even become rich, but this came at a cost.

First and foremost, you were collecting taxes for the Romans, the occupying power. You were a collaborator. I imagine this would have brought a risk of physical assault, even death; it would certainly have brought contempt.

Secondly, you dealt with the Romans regularly, and the Romans were Gentiles. That made you ritually unclean. Indeed, the testimony of tax collectors wasn’t valid in a Jewish court of law.

What sort of man would you be?

I expect you’d be callous, not caring overmuch for the opinion of your fellow citizens. Barred from formal religious life, you’d perhaps place your reliance on physical gratification. You would make friends among your own kind – other sinners, other people who shunned the spiritual. You would probably sneer at those who didn’t accept the reality of life. ‘You’ve got to live in the real world,’ you might say. ‘Face up to it; the Romans are in charge. They’ve brought stability and trade, and we might as well benefit from it. It’s the way of the world.’

And it is exactly that. This is exactly the way of the world, now as it was then. The structures of trade and tariffs, of wealth and taxation are instrumental in keeping the majority of people firmly in poverty. The way of the world, now as it was then, is the opposite of God’s way.

The Pharisees half-understood this. They recognised that the behaviour of tax collectors and sinners was contrary to God’s will for humanity. What they didn’t understand was that many of them behaved in the same way, making use of society’s power structures to further their own interests.

When they criticise Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners, he responds, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’ He doesn’t exclude the Pharisees from his healing message of salvation; instead, he invites them to consider whether they are genuinely righteous.

So who is included in Jesus’ call to salvation?

Well, the disciples, of course.

And the tax collectors and sinners.

And the hypocritical Pharisees.

In fact, everyone who heard Jesus’ message was included in his invitation.

It is the same today. Everyone who hears Jesus’ message is invited to repent, receive forgiveness, and start living in God’s way, and not the way of the world.

We’re all invited! Praise the Lord!

Prayer

Heavenly Father,

Thank you for the life and ministry of Jesus. Thank you that he invites us to live according to your will. Please help me to repent and obey you more and more each day.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Mark 2: 1 – 12 Jesus forgives and heals a paralysed man

Mark 2: 1 – 12 Jesus forgives and heals a paralysed man

A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralysed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’

Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’

Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, ‘Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to this paralysed man, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up, take your mat and walk”? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ So he said to the man, ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’ He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’

*       *       *

This is a rather strange and even humorous story of healing. I imagine Jesus preaching to the crowd while dust and masonry fall around him. It is, though, a story with a very definite message.

The men bringing the paralytic dug through somebody else’s roof to get their friend close to Jesus. What did it take to make them take such extreme measures? They must have been convinced that Jesus both could and would heal the paralysed man. Their action showed in a most definite way that they had faith in Jesus.

And Jesus didn’t let them down. When he saw their faith he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’

Some teachers of the law were sitting there, and they heard Jesus say this. ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ they thought. They were thinking of the elaborate rituals of the temple that the priests would carry out, as intermediaries between God and man.

This was not what Jesus was talking about. He confronted the teachers of the law, asking them why the form of words matters. ‘Which is easier: to say to this paralysed man, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up, take your mat and walk”?’

He then said, ‘But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ So he said to the man, ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’

The moment of truth had arrived. Those close to Jesus must have held their breath. Would the man stand up and walk? Yes, he did! “He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all.”

The Son of Man, Jesus, does indeed have the authority to forgive sins. HALLELUJAH!

There are two points I would make about how this passage is important today.

Firstly, it teaches us important truths about the nature of faith in Jesus:

  • We need to believe that Jesus can help us
  • We need to believe that Jesus wants to help us
  • We need to show our faith by seeking Jesus. When we first put our faith in him, that action may be as little as a whispered prayer of trust and that is sufficient.

Secondly, Jesus did not require repentance from the paralysed man. The mere fact that he had come with demonstrable faith was sufficient for Jesus to forgive his sins. When we come to Jesus in trust, he accepts us. There are no ifs and buts; there is just forgiveness.

Isn’t that wonderful?

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you for your love; thank you for sending Jesus to heal us and forgive us; thank you for sending your Holy Spirit to live in our hearts and teach us your way.

In Jesus name, Amen

Mark 1: 40 – 45 Jesus heals a man with leprosy

Mark 1: 40 – 45 Jesus heals a man with leprosy

A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean.’

Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.

Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: ‘See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.’ 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.

*       *       *

The Jewish law set out in Leviticus 13 & 14 went into great detail about defiling skin diseases, including leprosy. To be diagnosed with such a disease was life-changing. Leviticus 13: 45 – 46 tells us that anyone diagnosed with a defiling skin disease had to live alone, outside the camp. They were cut off from social life and they were cut off from religious life. They were unclean.

The law recognised that people could sometimes recover from the disease. The person who had recovered would be examined by a priest. If he saw no evidence of the disease, the recovered leper went through a ritual and was pronounced clean. They could once again join in normal life (Leviticus 14: 1 – 32).

Today’s passage from Mark’s gospel follows the description of Jesus praying in solitude and deciding to move from Capernaum and tour the other local villages. However, there is nothing in the text that says it followed immediately.

Jesus was approached by a leper. ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean,’ said the man. “If you are willing” and “I am willing” are from a Greek word that implies choice. You use the same word today in a shop to say, “I want…” The leper was asking Jesus if he wanted to heal him, and Jesus answers “Yes! Yes, I do want to heal you. Be clean!”

Jesus heals the man, warns him not to speak about the miracle, but to go discreetly to the priests and do everything needed to be declared free of the disease. There were still steps the man had to take for himself. He had to fulfil the requirements of the Jewish law, and have his cleansing officially endorsed, just as set down in Leviticus 14: 1 – 32. When that was complete, he would be fit for full participation in the life of society.

Jesus not merely healed him, he restored him to full life in the community. He restored the man’s right to take part in communal worship. He restored him to wholeness.

However, this healing came at a cost to Jesus. The healed man didn’t obey Jesus’ instruction not to tell anybody; instead, he talked freely to anyone who would listen. The result was that Jesus couldn’t enter a town without being mobbed; he had to stay outside “in lonely places.”

In a very real way, Jesus and the leper had changed places. The leper was free to resume life in society; Jesus had to stay outside the towns. Jesus had paid the price for the leper’s healing.

This healing epitomises Jesus’ mission. He came so that humanity could be made whole. He came so that humanity could once again have a relationship with God. Despite our sin, when we approach Jesus for forgiveness and healing, he says, “Yes, I want to heal you,” and our relationship with God is restored. And that healing, that forgiveness comes at a cost, a cost that Jesus pays by changing places with us.

Prayer

Thank you, Lord Jesus, for taking my sin and weakness so that I may become whole. Amen

Mark 1: 29 – 39 Jesus heals many & Jesus prays in a solitary place

Mark 1: 29 – 39 Jesus heals many & Jesus prays in a solitary place

Jesus heals many

As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the house of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.

That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all who were ill and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.

Jesus prays in a solitary place

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: ‘Everyone is looking for you!’

Jesus replied, ‘Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’ So he travelled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

*       *       *

It was the Sabbath, and Jesus had just amazed the townsfolk of Capernaum by his teaching and by casting out a demon. Because it was the Sabbath, with strict rules about how far you could travel, Jesus went to the house of Simon and Andrew. There he found Simon’s mother-in-law, who was ill.

Mark gives us important details about the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law. He is describing a specific woman, with specific symptoms. She was Simon’s mother-in-law, and she was suffering from a fever that was bad enough to confine her to bed. The disciples told Jesus about her. It was the Sabbath; healing her would be controversial. But Jesus is moved by compassion. He went to her, took her hand and helped her get up. The fever left her, and she began to wait on them.

We experience an act of healing by Jesus whenever we are forgiven. Are we like Simon’s mother-in-law? Do we immediately start to serve Jesus with renewed vigour? Forgiveness is a great opportunity for us to rededicate ourselves to the service of Jesus.  

Although Jesus carried out many healings later that evening, this was the one that stayed in the mind of the disciple who witnessed it. Maybe it was Simon himself who recounted the story to Mark. For many years, the writer of Mark’s gospel was believed to be a friend of Simon Peter, who was with him in Rome and recorded everything Simon Peter remembered of Jesus’ ministry. I understand this is no longer the accepted view, but the gospel is early – the first of the four – and is believed to have been written in the 70s AD. It is quite conceivable that this healing is based on a direct eye-witness account, and the detail provided supports that view.

The Sabbath lasted until sunset, and as soon as the sun had set, the townsfolk began to bring their sick and demon-possessed to Jesus. Mark tells us that Jesus healed many and drove out many demons. My 21st century mind struggles with the concept of demon-possession. For Mark, what differentiated illness from demon-possession? Would we reach the same diagnosis today? How could we differentiate between demon-possession and mental illness?

At all events, Jesus must have been busy for hours, and every one of those healings cost him power. We know this, because Mark 5: 25 – 34 tells us about the healing of the woman with an issue of blood. She touched Jesus’ cloak and was healed. Jesus said, “Who touched me?” He knew that somebody had been healed. As verse 30 puts it, ‘At once Jesus realised that power had gone out from him.’ Luke actually puts the words into the mouth of Jesus: “But Jesus said, ‘Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.’ (Luke 8: 46) Healing took energy.

Despite finishing late in the evening, Jesus was up long before dawn, when he went to a solitary place to pray. ‘Despite finishing late’? Perhaps I should say, ‘Because he finished late’? Jesus needed the time of solitary prayer to regain strength for his arduous ministry. He also needed guidance as to the next step in his ministry. Should he stay in Capernaum and consolidate? Or should he tour the other villages in the area and spread the word as far as possible? He prayed, in solitude; and when the disciples came looking for him, full of enthusiasm at the response of the people of Capernaum, Jesus was able to say, ‘Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’

Prayer

Heavenly Father

I’m sorry that I cling on to too much self-will. I do not always accept your guidance or obey your commands. Please help me to respond to your love, shown in Jesus, in whose name I pray.

Amen

Mark 1: 21 – 28 Jesus drives out an impure spirit

Mark 1: 21 – 28 Jesus drives out an impure spirit

They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who has authority, not as the teachers of the law. Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, ‘What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!’

‘Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. ‘Come out of him!’ The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching – and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.’ News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

*       *       *

Jesus taught, not in the usual way that a teacher of the law would have taught, but with authority. A teacher of the law would have referred to authorities. He might have said something like this: “Rabbi Hillel says this about divorce, but Rabbi Gamaliel says this. Rabbi Ananias supports Rabbi Gamaliel, but when the Sanhedrin considered the case of Nathanael they determined the case in line with Rabbi Hillel’s view…” In other words, their teaching was about precedent, and the arguments of legal experts.

Judaism, which had been the passionate love between Israel and God, had become adherence to a complex set of minutely detailed rules.

Jesus’ teaching was not like that. Mark has told us (in Mark 1: 15) what Jesus was saying at this early stage of his ministry. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’

This was a call to action. It’s still a call to action today. We none of us live sinless lives; we can always do better. There is always a need to repent – but note, it’s not a grovelling, miserable contrition. We are to ‘Repent and believe the good news!’. The good news is the news about Jesus, the news about forgiveness, the news that God will take us by the hand and help us to do better. It is the news that God loves us, and that we can come close to him.

Repentance for a Christian is allowing God to help us to be obedient to him.

Mark tells us that ‘The people were amazed at his teaching’.

But even while the congregation was marvelling at Jesus’ teaching, he was challenged. ‘Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, ‘What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!’

Without hesitation, Jesus ordered the impure spirit out of the man – and it obeyed, shaking the man violently and coming out of him with a shriek.

The miracles of Jesus are signs that the power of God is working in him. Mark makes that point here by juxtaposing his account of Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum with the account of the driving out of an impure spirit. The train of thought is this: Jesus’ teaching is new and amazing, and Jesus casts out an impure spirit, therefore Jesus’ teaching is true and supported by God. To make the point even clearer, Mark has the impure spirit recognise Jesus as the Holy One of God.

If Jesus did signs like this that validated his ministry, should today’s Christians expect to see similar signs? – and if not, why not? And, if they should expect such signs, how does this affect their ministry?

And – I can’t in good conscience leave it out – what are the implications of these verses for spiritual warfare between good and evil?

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you that you call us through Jesus to repent and believe the good news. Thank you for your love for each one of us. Please help me every day to love more and want my own way less.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

Mark 1: 14 – 20 Jesus announces the good news & Jesus calls his first disciples

Jesus announces the good news

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’

Jesus calls his first disciples

As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.

When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

*       *       *

“The kingdom of God has come near.”

What did Jesus mean by this?

Did he mean the restoration of Israel by the Messiah who would usher in the rule of God?

Two thousand years have passed and the latest nation of Israel shows little sign of living under the rule of God, so he probably didn’t mean this.

Did he mean that heaven was coming soon for all who kept the faith?

Again, no, probably not. Life has continued without the drama of an apocalypse followed by heaven for the believers.

So what did he mean?

Possibly he meant that the kingdom of God could come in the heart of each one of us. After all, when he taught us to pray, he said “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. Whenever we pray those words, we are saying “Rule over my life, Father”; or “Your kingdom come in my heart; your will be done by me.”

This fits with the response of the disciples. When Jesus called them to follow him, they did so without delay. They dropped their regular daily tasks and became Jesus’ disciples. Being a disciple of Jesus is primarily a question of faith. If we have faith, then God’s kingdom lives in our hearts.

This shows in our lives, as “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”. (Galatians 5: 22 – 23)

But what is faith?

Let me give you a worldly example. I have read that walking 10,000 steps every day boosts the immune system. I believe the medical science that says this. But 10,000 steps represents nearly two hours exercise; time when I could be doing something else. I have chosen to make that commitment to exercise, and I do it diligently. Rain or shine, I walk five miles every day. Agreeing mentally with the medical science is belief. Getting out and doing the exercise is faith.

The disciples understood that distinction. When Jesus called them to follow him, they obeyed immediately. They understood that it would be costly, but they didn’t hesitate; they acted.

It’s when we act that we grow as Christians.

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you for calling me to be a follower of Jesus. Please help me to listen to you, and do what you command.

In Jesus’ name, Amen

Mark 1: 9 – 13 The baptism and testing of Jesus

Mark 1: 9 – 13 The baptism and testing of Jesus

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

*       *       *

The first important thing I note from this passage is that although God does not tempt people to evil, under some circumstances he permits the devil to tempt them.

He allowed Jesus to be tempted. Indeed, it was the Holy Spirit who sent Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted. It was God’s will that his temptation took place.

Why? Well, there are all sorts of possible reasons.

Perhaps it was so that we would know he was fully man? His experience of human life would have been incomplete without temptation.

Maybe it was a period of testing? The Father knew, of course, that Jesus would successfully resist the temptation. But did Jesus know? Sometimes (maybe always) when God ‘tests’ our faith, it is not for us to prove it to him, it is for us to prove it to ourselves.

Was it perhaps, to clarify his mission? The gospels make it clear that during his mortal life Jesus did not know every detail of God’s plan for him. He frequently withdrew to a lonely place to pray. He did not have some superhuman link with the Father. He relied on the prompting of the Holy Spirit, just as we do. The temptation in the wilderness may have been a fierce learning experience to sharpen his ability to differentiate between the prompting of the Holy Spirit and human ‘wisdom’.

Matthew 4: 1 – 11 gives a more detailed account of the temptation.

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting for forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’

Jesus answered, ‘It is written: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down. For it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” ’

Jesus answered him, ‘It is also written: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.” ’

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

There were three temptations:

  • The temptation to satisfy a basic human need;
  • The temptation to ‘prove’ his calling with a supernatural miracle; and
  • The temptation to be the Messiah that the world expected, conquering the world and ruling it according to the world’s standards rather than God’s.

Each of the temptations is really about doubting his mission.

If you are the Son of God,” whispers the voice of temptation, “then shouldn’t you provide miraculous food for the people of Israel?”

If you are the Son of God, why not use miracles to convince people you are the Messiah?”

“Look at all the kingdoms of the world. Be the sort of Messiah your people expect! You can rule all the nations of the earth, and Israel will be great.”

And Jesus foils each temptation with the teaching of scripture. He affirms each time that he will follow God’s will and not the wisdom of the world.

But there is a subtlety to this understanding. When we look at the ministry of Jesus, we see that he did indeed feed people miraculously in the feeding of the five thousand. He did indeed work signs and wonders, healing the sick and raising the dead, that confirmed he was the Son of God. He did indeed come as the Messiah. What mattered was that these were the right actions at the right moment. Jesus always listened to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and always obeyed it.

We, too, have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. The guidance and strength given to Jesus is ours too, if we practise listening and obeying his prompting. May God grant us the will to do so.

YOUR KINGDOM COME, LORD!

Prayer

Heavenly Father

Thank you that Jesus lived among us in fully human form. Please help me to follow his example of obedience to you even when tempted to turn away.

In Jesus’ name, Amen