Jesus forgives and heals a paralytic, and the teachers of the law criticize him for his forgiving sins. He calls Levi. Jesus says that his own mission is to reach the unhealthy. People question him about fasting. Pharisees criticize Jesus because his disciples were plucking grain on the Sabbath.
As I write in the introduction to every chapter:
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The translation is mine. I add yet another translation for one purpose: to learn. It tends to be literal, but complete literalness and readability are impossible, so adjustments had to be made.
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I ask Growth Application (GrowApp) questions after each section of Scripture, for discipleship.
I add some Greek word studies, in a nontechnical way. The Greek terms with brief definitions can also be looked up at biblehub.com.
Links are provided for further study.
Jesus Heals a Paralytic Man (Mark 2:1-12)
1 When he entered Capernaum after some days, it was heard that he was at home. 2 Many people were gathered, so there was no room, neither at the door. He was speaking the word to them. 3 They came, bringing to him a paralytic, taken up by four men, 4 and when they were unable to bring him because of the crowd, they unroofed the roof where Jesus was and dug through and lowered the mat on which the paralytic was laying. 5 Jesus, seeing their faith, said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Some of the teachers of the law were there, sitting, reasoning in their hearts, 7 “Who is this man who speaks in this way? He is blaspheming! Who is able to forgive sins except God alone?” 8 And then Jesus, knowing by his spirit that they were reasoning in that way among themselves, said, “Why do you reason in your hearts about these things? 9 What is easier? To say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’? or to say, ‘Get up and pick up your mat and walk!’? 10 So that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on the earth”—he says to the paralytic, 11 “I say to you: Get up, pick up your mat, and go to your house!” 12 Then he got up and immediately picked up the mat and left in front of everyone, so that everyone was amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen such things!”
“As elsewhere in the early Galilean ministry, Jesus’s authority is on center stage. Here he demonstrates his authority not only to heal disease, but also to forgive sins. The two are inextricably connected in Jesus’s announcement of the kingdom of God and the restoration of creation that this entails” (Strauss, p. 117)
Capernaum: Jesus temporarily adopted it as his new hometown (Mark 2:1). Scholars estimate that it ranged in population from 1000 to 10,000. A centurion lived there (Matt. 8:5) and a custom post was stationed there (Matt. 9:9), so it was an administrative center. So it was probably closer to 10,000 than to 1000. It was much larger than Nazareth. It was traditionally a Jewish town, unlike other towns in Galilee, which had been Hellenized (Greek) or Romanized (Roman).
He was out on a ministry tour of Galilee, and finally he returned home (Capernaum).
But the crowds would not let him rest. The crowds got so big that the door was blocked and there was no room for him to move, so to speak. Another way to translate “no room” is “not going forward” or “not going out.” No ingress or egress. They blocked the door! Mark paints the image of Jesus being besieged in his house.
Yet he was speaking the word to them. “Word” could also be “message.” It is a broad noun. It is the Greek noun logos (pronounced loh-goss and is used 330 times in the NT). Since it is so important, let’s explore the noun more deeply, as I do in this entire commentary series.
The noun is rich and full of meaning. It always has built into it rationality and reason. It has spawned all sorts of English words that end in –log-, like theology or biology, or have the log– stem in them, like logic.
Though certain Renewalists may not like to hear it, there is a rational side to the Word of God, and a moment’s thought proves it. The words you’re reading right now are placed in meaningful and logical and rational order. The Bible is also written in that way. If it weren’t, then it would be nonsense and confusing, and we couldn’t understand the gibberish. (Even your prophecies have to make logical and rational sense on some level!) Your Bible studies and Sunday morning sermons have to make sense, also. Mark’s Gospel has logic and rational argumentation built into it. People need to be ministered to in this way. God gave us minds and brains and expects us to use them. Your preaching cannot always be flashy and shrieky and so outlandishly entertaining that people are not fed in the long term. Movements like that don’t last over the years without the Word. I have observed this from firsthand experience in certain sectors of the Renewal Movement.
People have the deepest need to receive solid teaching. Never become so outlandishly supernatural and entertaining that you neglect the reasonable and rational side of preaching the gospel and teaching the Bible. Yes, Luke-Acts, for example, is very charismatic, but it is also very orderly and rational and logical.
On the other side of the word logos, people get so intellectual that they build up an exclusive Christian caste of intelligentsia that believe they alone can teach and understand the Word. Not true.
Bottom line: Just study Scripture with Bible helps and walk in the Spirit, as they did in Acts. Combining Word and Spirit is the balanced life.
Though we don’t know for sure, there is no mystery what he was teaching them. Just read the teaching section of the Gospel of Mark.
Four men carried him on a cot or mattress or mat—I chose mat because it makes more sense to be able to lower the paralytic in it. The paralytic’s friends or relatives (or both) intended to place him right in front of Jesus. These were fine friends or relatives of the paralytic! However, crowd blocked their way. But how could they lower a stretcher? They probably just put him in the bedding, so he was bundled up in a big cloth sack.
I don’t know why the crowds would not let them through. All they had to do was step aside. It is probable, to judge from the previous chapter and the large crowds and the flow of the story, that countless numbers of people had their own illnesses or friends and relatives who also needed healing, and in no way would they allow these newcomers to cut in line! Anyone who has attended a large healing rally knows about some unspoken competition.
“unroofed the roof”: that’s a literal translation. If you don’t like it, you can say “made an opening” The men must have removed mud, calculating where Jesus was sitting—probably at the door. They intended to lower their friend right in front of Jesus. He heard the noise. Clay dust may have landed on him or by him. He looked up. He smiled. He admired how they pushed in to get their miracle.
Commenting on vv. 3-4, Wessel and Strauss describe the house:
It was usually a small, one-room structure with a flat roof. Middle Eastern roofs were often used for storage, drying fruit, and for sleeping on warm summer nights. Access was by means of an outside stairway or ladder built against an outside wall of the house (cf. modern escape ladders on the outside of multi-storied apartment complexes). The roof itself was usually made of wooden beams with thatched and compacted earth in order to shed the rain.
No, not every disease is caused by sin. True, the Bible says that sometimes disease and death are caused by sin (Deut. 28:27; Ps. 107:17-18; John 5:14; Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor. 11:30; 1 John 5:16), but this not always the case (Job 1:8; Luke 13:1-5; John 9:2-3). “The arrival of the kingdom of God will mean the full restoration of God’s creation, both physically and spiritually. Dealing with the root cause of all disease and death—sinful rebellion against God—is essential for all true healing. Spiritual and physical healing are closely linked in Mark’s Gospel. When Jesus says, ‘Your faith has saved … you’ (5:34; 10:52), he is referring to physical healing but with the broader connotation of spiritual renewal” (Strauss).
Lane adds this insightful comment on v. 5:
Healing is a gracious movement of God into the sphere of withering and decay which are tokens of death at work in man’s life. It was not God’s intention that man should live with the pressure of death upon him. Sickness, disease and death are the consequence of the sinful condition of all men. Consequently every healing is a driving back of death and an invasion of the province of sin. It is unnecessary to think of a corresponding sin for each instance of sickness; there is no suggestion in the narrative that the paralytic’s physical suffering was related to a specific sin or was due to hysteria induced by guilt. Jesus’ pronouncement of pardon is the recognition that many can be genuinely whole only when the breach occasioned by sin has been healed through God’s forgiveness of sins.
The Hebrew word for “forgive” that only God can offer is salach (pronounced sah-lahkh) (see Works Cited link, below, and the commentary on the Torah, p. 771). It is found forty-seven times in the Hebrew Bible. Let’s focus on Leviticus, since the temple and the sacrificial system in Jerusalem loomed over Judaism, even up in Galilee; it is in this book and the sacrificial system where forgiveness can be obtained. (In many of the other references, people pray that God would forgive sins [2 Chron. 6:21, 25, 27, 30, 39], or God himself pronounces forgiveness on people: “I will forgive their iniquity” [Jer. 36:3].) In Leviticus, which prescribes specific offerings for sins, the priest pronounces that the offerer is forgiven, but only after the right offering is done. Then the priest uses the “divine passive”; that is, the Torah says repeatedly, “his sin will be forgiven,” implying that God is the one forgiving. Here’s a sample verse: “With the ram of the guilt offering the priest is to make atonement for him before the Lord for the sin he has committed, and his sin will be forgiven” (Lev. 19:22, emphasis added). Note the passive “will be forgiven.” However, the entire context says that Jesus is not acting like a priest, who declares sin forgiven, but actually forgiving sin (see France’s comment at v. 10).
In contrast, the paralytic or his four friends or relatives are never said to have offered a ram or any other animal at the temple. Jesus simply and authoritatively pronounces forgiveness of sins on the paralytic. Jesus did not go through the temple system. Even Nathan the prophet did not use the word salach when he said that the Lord had taken away David’s sin (2 Sam. 12:13).
And so we should have no doubt that Jesus used the Hebrew word salach (his native language was Hebrew) when he pronounced forgiveness outside the temple system. It was surely this word which got the religious leaders’ attention. The priest depended on the authority of the Law of Moses—the Torah, the Very Word of God—to pronounce forgiveness with the divine passive. In contrast, Jesus independently asserted his own authority to pronounce forgiveness (v. 10), outside of the Law of Moses and the priesthood. Jesus was not playing by the rules but took on himself divine prerogatives, as the Son of Man, echoing Dan. 7:13-14, which says that the Son of Man has the highest divine status.
Here are the key verses in Daniel:
13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13-14, NIV)
The Ancient of Days is God, and the Son of Man is “coming” towards him and given authority, glory, and sovereignty and dominion. Jesus’s status as the Son of Man is the highest in the universe, apart from God’s.
Jesus is bringing God’s salach down here “on earth” (v. 10) and embodying it in his own person. The religious leaders never dreamed of doing this in their own authority. For them, this arrogation would be “blasphemous” (v. 7). Yet he backed up his own authority by healing the man in front of everyone, something the religious leaders or the priests never did or even dreamed of doing. He seemed to have swept aside the entire system.
However, you may not accept that Jesus used the word salach. If so, in the parallel passage in Matthew’s Gospel, commentator Craig Keener says that the authority to forgive sins is an “attribute Jewish people did not even associate with the Messiah” (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Eerdmans, 1999, p. 289). This indicates that Jesus the Messiah is still speaking in a new and authoritative way which traditionalists would find blasphemous.
For further study, please click here:
Further, Renewalists like this verse, because Jesus “saw” their faith. There is nothing out of the ordinary about the word “saw.” It is the standard one. But Jesus could “see” an invisible force like faith, which is unusual. Today, sometimes the showier healing evangelists take intense joy in announcing they can perceive a rise of faith in the crowd. “I feel something happen right then! Faith has arisen!” That may be okay, if it is true, but I just don’t picture Jesus shouting such things. He always seemed to calm and nonshowy. He saw their faith because he saw them digging a hole in the roof (and perhaps he read the lame man’s heart).
“faith”: In the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus often heals in response to people’s faith (Mark 5:34, 36; 9:23-24; 10:52; Matt. 9:2, 22, 29; 15:28; 17:20; 21:21; Luke 5:20; 7:9, 50; 8:48; 17:6; 18:42). It is important to exercise one’s faith, and the standard way in all of those passages is the sick person’s words or actions. Then Jesus responds to the person’s faith.
Commentator R. T. France says:
Here, however, faith is apparently exercised on behalf of another, while the patient himself remains inactive until v. 12, and is silent throughout. No reason for this is offered; clearly Mark does not have a fixed stereotype of how faith must relate to healing. It is possible that he intends to include the faith of the patient as well as of his friends in [autōn, pronounced ow-tone, or their] (his action in v. 12 is certainly an act of faith), but it is their action, not any indication of his own attitude (unless he is understood to have instigated their unorthodox approach to Jesus), which Jesus sees … and on which his response is based.
Sometimes others have to stand in for the sick person’s absence of faith. It is a blessing to see the four men care for their friend or relative. As one effective healer used to say, “Somebody in the room has to have faith somewhere” or “faith has to be in the room for healing to occur” (that’s a paraphrase of a very effective pastor and healer).
Let’s study the noun more broadly, as I do whenever the noun or verb appears.
The noun is pistis (pronounced peace-teace or piss-tiss), and it is used 243 times. Its basic meaning is the “belief, trust, confidence,” and it can also mean “faithfulness” and “trustworthy” (Mounce p. 232). It is directional, and the best direction is faith in God (Mark 11:22; 1 Thess. 1:8; 1 Pet. 1:21; Heb. 6:1) and faith in Jesus (Acts 3:16; 20:21; 24:24; Gal. 3:26; Eph. 1:15; Col. 1:4; 1 Tim. 3:13). Believing (verb) and faith (noun) is very important to God. It is the language of heaven. We live on earth and by faith see the invisible world where God is. We must believe he exists; then we must exercise our faith to believe he loves us and intends to save us. We must have saving faith by trusting in Jesus and his finished work on the cross.
Forsaking All, I Trust Him
Let’s discuss the verb believe and the noun faith more deeply. It is the language of the kingdom of God. It is how God expects us to relate to him. It is the opposite of doubt, which is manifested in whining and complaining and fear. Instead, faith is, first, a gift that God has distributed to everyone (Rom. 12:3). Second, it is directional (Rom. 10:9-11; Acts 20:21). We cannot rightly have faith in faith. It must be faith in God through Christ. Third, faith in Christ is different from faith in one’s ability to follow God on one’s own. It is different from keeping hundreds of religious laws and rules. This is one of Luke’s main themes in Acts, culminating in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and Paul’s ministry for the rest of Acts. Faith in Jesus over faith in law keeping. Fourth, there is faith as a set of beliefs and doctrines, which are built on Scripture (Acts 6:7). Fifth, there is also a surge of faith that is poured out and transmitted through the Spirit when people need it most (1 Cor. 12:9). It is one of the nine charismata or manifestations of grace (1 Cor 12:7-11). Sixth, one can build faith and starve doubt by feasting on Scripture and the words about Christ (Rom. 10:17).
In this verse they had faith for their friend to be healed. They directed their faith towards Jesus the healer. They acted before the paralytic was healed. They had such confidence in the healing power of Jesus that they broke through the barriers—now that’s the faith that God likes!
“sins”: it comes from the noun hamartia (pronounced hah-mar-tee-ah). A deep study reveals that it means a “departure from either human or divine standards of uprightness” (BDAG, p. 50). It can also mean a “destructive evil power” (ibid., p. 51). In other words, sin has a life of its own. Be careful! In the older Greek of the classical world, it originally meant to “miss the mark” or target. Sin destroys, and that’s why God hates it, and so should we. The good news: God promises us forgiveness when we repent.
“forgiven”: it comes from the verb aphiēmi (pronounced ah-fee-ay-mee), and BDAG, considered by many to be the authoritative lexicon of the Greek NT, defines it with the basic meaning of letting go: (1) “dismiss or release someone or something from a place or one’s presence, let go, send away”; (2) “to release from legal or moral obligations or consequence, cancel, remit, pardon”; (3) “to move away with implication of causing a separation, leave, depart”; (4) “to leave something continue or remain in its place … let someone have something” (Matt. 4:20; 5:24; 22:22; Mark 1:18; Luke 10:30; John 14:18); (5) “leave it to someone to do something, let, let go, allow, tolerate.” The Shorter Lexicon adds “forgive.” In sum, God lets go, dismisses, releases, sends away, cancels, pardons, and forgives our sins. His work is full and final. Don’t go backwards or dwell on it. Clearly the most significant definition in this context is the second one and the Shorter Lexicon’s. It means to forgive.
Please read these verses for how forgiving God is:
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us. (Ps. 103:10-12)
And these great verses are from Micah:
18 Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over transgression
for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in steadfast love.
19 He will again have compassion on us;
he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea. (Mic. 7:18-19, ESV)
It would be over-generalizing to believe that sin always leads to sickness, and disease is always caused by sickness. But here we see that sin was somehow connected to this young man’s paralysis. Since we don’t know the details, let’s not speculate. Yet in our prayers for the sick today, ask God for special knowledge—a word of knowledge—to know whether the sick person you are praying for has any kind of unconfessed sin in his life. He may not even be saved. Lead him to Christ before you pray.
“teachers of the law”: They were also called scribes. To learn more about them, please click here:
They were the Watchdogs of Theology and Behavior (David E. Garland, Luke: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Zondervan, 2011], p. 243). The problem which Jesus had with them can be summed up in Eccl. 7:16: “Be not overly righteous.” He did not quote that verse, but to him they were much too enamored with the finer points of the law, while neglecting its spirit (Luke 11:37-52; Matt. 23:1-36). Instead, he quoted this verse from Hos. 6:6: “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:13; 12:7). Overdoing righteousness, believe it or not, can damage one’s relationship with God and others. Too self-focused.
They were probably muttering amongst themselves.
Wessel and Strauss write of v. 7 and Jesus’s pronouncement of forgiveness:
The OT priests pronounced God’s forgiveness of repentant sinners who brought sacrificial offerings to the temple and a prophet such as Nathan could pronounce David forgiven on the basis of his repentance (2 Sam. 12:13). But Jesus’s functioning as God’s spokesperson is clearly not how Mark intended his readers to hear Jesus’s words, since the teachers of the law immediately accuse Jesus of blasphemy, and since in v. 9 Jesus explicitly declares his own authority to forgive sins.
“reasoning”: the verb is dialogizomai (pronounced dee-ah-log-gee-zoh-my, and the “g” is hard). Our word dialogue is related to it). Mark uses it three times in this pericope (puh-RIH-koh-pea) or section of Scripture. It goes deeper than another verb for thinking, nomizō (pronounced noh-mee-zoh). The log– stem has a wider intellectual or mental sense to it, and the prefix dia– here just means “through,” “thorough” or “continuous.” The Greeks could add –iz– to a word and change it into a verb. It means “consider, ponder, reason, discuss, argue.” It can be an interior debate in your mind, like a tennis match, or a discussion with others, as here. It seems to be the opposite of faith and authority and power. They launched into a dispute—a never-ending discussion, round and round they went, grinding words into powder, not power.
Blasphemy is a serious charge that brought death (Lev. 24:15-16). An Israelite was actually stoned to death for doing so (Lev. 24:23). It is abusive and defiling speech about God. That was the crime of which Jesus will be accused, which triggered his death (Mark 14:62-64).
Wessel and Strauss write of blasphemy:
The Mishnah [collection oral traditions written down in about AD 200] defines blasphemy narrowly as the act of pronouncing the divine name … but Bock [a NT scholar] and others have shown that the term could be used for a much wider range of offenses against God. To lay claim to God’s sole prerogative to forgive sins would certainly have qualified. If the scribes [teachers of the law] are correct about who Jesus is, their reasoning is flawless. In Jewish teaching even the Messiah could not forgive sins. The manner in which the accusation is expressed, “Who can forgive sins except One—God” … may indicate an allusion to the Shema, the classic Jewish statement of monotheism from Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God; the LORD is one.” Jesus is accused of usurping God’s unique position.
This is high Christology in Mark.
“hearts”: many Renewalists believe it is a synonym for the human spirit, and soul is a different “part” of the inner person, while others believe that heart-spirit-soul are all synonyms for the one united inner being, in contrast to the outer body. Here “heart” seems to be synonymous for mind, where reasoning takes place. See my post about this topic of our inner life:
You can decide, but I suggest we not rigidly compartmentalize the human, for even the inner and outer are connected, because our bodies will be restored and transformed and glorified on the last day. God sees us right now as a whole and united person. Word of Faith teachers make too much of the disunity of humanity.
“There is heavy irony here. Even as the religious leaders are scoffing at Jesus’ claim to divine authority, he is reading their minds—demonstrating a prerogative of God!” (Strauss).
“knowing”: it is the verb epiginōskō (pronounced eh-pea-gee-noh-skoh, and the “g” is hard as in “get,” and it is used 44 times in the NT). In any case here are the basic meanings, depending on the context: (1) “know exactly, completely”; “know again, recognize”; “acknowledge’; (2) “know, learn, find out, ascertain; notice; perceive, learn of; understand, know, learn to know.” The first set of definitions is the best one here. Jesus knew exactly and completely what they were reasoning.
He was using the gift of the word of knowledge; that is, by the Spirit he got access to their thoughts. However, some Bible teachers say that he got access to their thoughts because he was God incarnate, and God is omniscient. So Jesus’s omniscience “flashed out” from behind his humanity by the Father’s will. Remember, Jesus did not lose or lay aside or give up or divine attributes or have them “lopped off” when he was incarnated. Instead, his humanity was added to his divinity. And then his divine attributes were hidden behind his humanity and surrendered to his Father. And once in a while, the Father willed that his Son could know things that only God could know. Whether he used the Spirit by word of knowledge to read their thoughts or his divine omniscience “broke free” or “shone out” of humanity, both sides agree (or should agree) that he never lost his divine attributes. I prefer the theology that says that the Spirit revealed their thoughts to him. But you can choose the other explanation, if you wish. Maybe it is both his divine nature and the Spirit, cooperating together, by the Father’s will.
Let’s discuss Jesus’s fearless confrontation with these religious leaders.
As I noted in other chapters, first-century Israel was an honor-and-shame society. Verbal and active confrontations happened often. By active is meant actions. Here the confrontation is both verbal and acted out. Jesus healed the paralytic, so he won the actual confrontation, and this victory opened the door to his verbal victory with religious leaders who were binding people up with traditions. They needed to be loosed from them. Jesus shamed the leaders to silence. He won. It may seem strange to us that Jesus would confront human opponents, because we are not used to doing this in our own lives, and we have heard that Jesus was meek and silent.
More relevantly, for many years now there has been a teaching going around the Body of Christ that says when Christians are challenged, they are supposed to slink away or not reply. This teaching may come from the time of Jesus’s trial when it is said he was as silent as a sheep (Acts 8:32). No. He spoke up then, as well (Matt. 26:64; Mark 14:32; Luke 23:71; John 18:19-23; 32-38; 19:11). Therefore, “silence” means submission to the will of God without resisting or fighting back. But here he replied to the religious leaders and defeated them and their inadequate theology. Get into a discussion and debate with your challengers. Stand toe to toe with them. In short, fight like Jesus!
Of course, caution is needed. The original context is a life-and-death struggle between the kingdom of God and religious traditions. Get the original context, first, before you fight someone in a verbal sparring match. This was a clash of worldviews. Don’t pick fights or be rude to your spouse or baristas or clerks in the service industry. Discuss things with him or her. But here Jesus was justified in replying sharply to these oppressive religious leaders.
Please see this post for further study:
Some interpreters argue that it is easier to heal the man than to say his sins are forgiven, because Jesus will die on the cross for them, which is much more difficult than to heal the man’s broken body. However, that line of teaching exercises too much interpretive gymnastics, our minds making connections two thousand years later, bundling things up that the people in this section of the Gospel did not focus on. Jesus was not dying on the cross then and there. Instead, the straightforward interpretation is that it is easier to say the man’s sins are forgiven because people cannot see with their own eyes the effects of this pronouncement. In contrast, they are about to see with their own eyes the physical healing of paralysis. By analogy you or I can say an inner work in the soul is done, but it is more difficult to say a leg is lengthened because viewers can measure the leg. It is more difficult to say, “Get up and walk!” than it is to say “your interior sins are forgiven.”
Wessel and Strauss write of v. 9 and the debate over “which is easier”:
Of course, as Jesus meant the words, neither of the two was easier. Effecting both was equally impossible for human beings and equally possible for God. To the teachers of the law, it was easier to make the statement about forgiveness, for who could verify its fulfillment? But to say, “Get up … and walk”—the authority to issue that command could indeed be verified by an actually, observable healing. Jesus’s question takes the form of a rabbinic-style “lesser-to-greater … argument. If someone can do the “harder” (in this case physically heal someone), it will prove the “easier” (here the forgiving of sins) has also been accomplished.
“forgiven”: see v. 5 for more comments.
“sins”: see v. 5 for more comments.
“know”: this verb is oida (pronounced oi-dah and used 318 times). It means, depending on the context: (1) “know (about)”; (2) “be intimately acquainted with, stand in close relation to”; (3) “know” or “understand how, can, be able”; (4) “understand, recognize, come to know.” Here the best definition is the fourth set. The Pharisees and teachers of the law had to understand and recognize and come to know that the Son of Man had authority on earth to forgive sins.
How would they understand this? He backs up his words with healing the paralytic. So the words are demonstrated with power. Paul said the same thing. He did not come with high and mighty words of human wisdom, but with a demonstration of signs and wonders and God’s power (Rom. 15:18-19; 1 Cor. 2:4-5).
Renewalists love this idea. They too are tired of just words. They want to see signs and wonders. Yes, bad people can work signs and wonders (Matt. 7:15-23; 2 Thess. 2:9), but God also works them, as here and in Paul’s life. Do we have to let the bad people dictate terms? In any case, Renewalists want something more than just words. They ask, “I wonder where the signs went!” They are right.
“Son of Man”: it both means the powerful, divine Son of Man (Dan. 7:13-14) and the human son of man—Ezekiel himself—in the book of Ezekiel (numerous references). Jesus was and still is in heaven both divine and human.
“authority”: it is the noun exousia (pronounced ex-oo-see-ah), and it means, depending on the context: “right to act,” “freedom of choice,” “power, capability, might, power, authority, absolute power”; “power or authority exercised by rulers by virtue of their offices; official power; domain or jurisdiction, spiritual powers.” Here Jesus proclaims that “the Son of Man’s authority is equivalent to that which the Father exercises in heaven. Through the Son of Man, God’s heavenly forgiveness has now come to earth” (Strauss).
The difference between authority and power is parallel to a policeman’s badge and his gun. The badge symbolizes his right to exercise his power through his gun, if necessary. The gun backs up his authority with power. But the distinction should not be pressed too hard, because exousia can also mean “power.” In any case, God through Jesus can distribute authority to his followers (Matt. 10:1; Luke 10:19; John 1:12). Jesus will give us authority even over the nations, if we overcome trials and persecution (Rev. 2:26). And he is about to distribute his power in Acts 2.
Never forget that you have his authority and power to live a victorious life over your personal flaws and sins and Satan. They no longer have power and authority over you; you have power and authority over them.
For nearly all the references of that word and some theology, please click here:
And commentator R. T. France writes about v. 10 and says that Jesus claimed for himself a distinctive divine prerogative to exercise forgiveness on earth, as follows.
The [exousia] which Jesus here claims is not merely that of declaring sins forgiven, but of forgiving (see on v. 5 for the distinction). This is exactly the way the scribes’ [teachers of the law] unspoken thoughts have set up the problem in v. 7; they have in mind a distinctively divine prerogative, and Jesus responds in their own terms, claiming to be able to exercise that divine right [on earth]. This phrase is added not so much to limit the [exousia] asserted (on earth but not in heaven), but rather to underline the boldness of the claim: forgiveness, hitherto thought to be an exclusively heavenly function, can now be exercised [on earth] because of the presence of [the Son of Man] (who according to Dn. 7:13–14 was to receive from God an authority to be exercised over all the earth).
The people’s response is interesting. They showed reverential fear and awe, and they also glorified and praised God. The two are linked. So far, so good.
No one else around the first century could pronounce healing with such decisive results. But evidently they were not convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. Maybe that’s why Capernaum would come under Jesus’s pronouncement of judgment for not believing in him (Matt. 11:23). They could not connect the miracles and his authority to forgive sins with his Messiahship.
The healing was instant, and Mark makes a point of it. No gradual healing for this man in this circumstance, despite this skeptical audience. (Sometimes healings are gradual.) Jesus needed to demonstrate that the Son of Man could forgive sins. Did the paralytic convulse a little as strength and feeling surged through his body? Or did he just get up smoothly without adjustments to his body? Probably the latter thing happened. He just got up and picked up his bedding.
He glorified or praised God on the way home. His friends or relatives had to scurry down from the roof and catch up to him. Did the men look triumphantly at the crowd as they passed by, when the people had refused to let the stretcher go through? No word on their offer to repair the roof! The text is silent, but it is fun to speculate about small things like this.
What was so strange, wonderful, remarkable? First, a paralytic got his complete, instant healing. Second, the ex-paralytic’s sins were forgiven, after all. Third, the Son of Man—the Messiah—was standing right in front of them. Fourth, this was an honor-and-shame society, and the people saw the Pharisees and teachers of the law get their comeuppance, and some of the less pious in the crowd must have snickered at their expense. The powerful were shamed, while the paralytic was honored. Fifth, quarreling and quibbling over matters of the law and traditions was cut apart like the Gordian knot was cut through. It is God breaking in and crushing these empty discussions, demonstrating his love and power. Sixth, the Pharisees had strong political views, and Jesus lifted their sights to the kingdom of God. Politics about Israel doesn’t matter, standing in contrast to the soon-to-be global kingdom (Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8).
I like how Wessel and Strauss conclude this pericope: “In this act of forgiveness Jesus was declaring the presence of God’s forgiveness” (p. 727).
GrowApp for Mark 2:1-12
A.. Jesus forgave the paralytic’s sins. What happened to you when your sins were forgiven?
B.. Is faith and reasoning (or inner debating) opposites? How has over-analyzing hindered your walk with God, if it has?
Jesus Calls Levi (Mark 2:13-17)
13 And he again went out along the lake of Galilee, and all the people were coming to him. And he was teaching them. 14 And as he was going along, he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at his tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” Then he got up and followed him. 15 And it happened that Levi invited him to recline at table at his house, and many tax collectors and sinners reclined at table with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 Then the teachers of the law allied with the Pharisees, seeing that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, were saying to his disciples, “For what reason does he eat with tax collectors and sinners? 17 Then Jesus, hearing this, said to them, “The healthy have no need of healing, but those having sickness do. I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
To find out who Matthew / Levi was, please see the post:
On v. 14, Wessel and Strauss write of Levi’s / Matthew’s identity:
But the easier and more likely explanation is that “Matthew” and “Levi” are two names for the same person. “Levi” may have been his given name and “Matthew” (“gift of God”) his apostolic name (cf. “Simon Peter”). Or perhaps both names were given at birth. Another one of the twelve is names “James son of Alphaeus,” perhaps Levi’s brother.
“lake of Galilee”: “of Galilee” was inserted for clarity. Capernaum was right on the lake. Lake is most often translated as “sea,” because of the Greek word thalassa (pronounced tha-lahs-sah), but the Shorter Lexicon offers the option of “lake.” And since the body of water in Galilee is a lake, I chose this term. The old traditional title, “The Sea of Galilee,” to modern readers, makes no sense when they see it on an online map; the term is inaccurate. France says that Num. 34:11 mentions the yam–kinneret, and the LXX uses the Greek word here in Mark (thalassa). Strauss, in his comments on 1:16, adds Josh. 13:27. Luke correctly calls it the Lake of Galilee (5:1). The LXX is a third to first century translation of the OT from Hebrew to Greek. And the bottom line is that Mark is following OT usage. He is not being ignorant and inaccurate—but he is conforming to the authoritative OT.
“All the people”: it is a little hyperbole (pronounced hy-per-boh-lee), which is rhetorical exaggeration. We should not build a federal case on the term “all.” Sometimes “all” does not mean “all”! Surely some mothers and children stayed home to knead the bread. Mark simply means that it seems as though the entire people of the whole area came to see him.
“teaching”: It is the verb didaskō (pronounced dee-dahs-koh, and our word didactic is related to it). The verb means to instruct or tell or teach (BDAG), sometimes in a formal setting like a classroom or another confined setting, other times in a casual setting. He spoke with authority, unlike the teachers of the law and Pharisees (Luke 4:32; Matt. 7:28-29). This is what the Spirit does through a surrendered heart and mind. It was his habit and custom to enter their synagogues and teach the people, or sometimes he taught by the lakeside. He combined a teaching and healing ministry. His insight into Scripture was profound. This is what the Spirit does through a surrendered heart and mind. Some Renewalists of the fiery variety don’t teach, but evangelize and shriek and freak, after they read one verse or two, and put on a show. How much time do they put in to study the Word? Jesus had a full ministry: teaching, healing, miracles, and deliverances.
As for Levi’s seemingly instant response, he heard the message, and maybe his heart felt strangely warm within him. Sometimes skeptics say that there is no way that Levi would follow a stranger with two words, “follow me.” But Jesus was teaching the crowds, and we can fill in the gaps in the text and conclude that Levi heard him teach over the weeks.
Tax collectors were considered awful and evil, for they took advantage of people and charged too much, so they could skim money off the top.
To learn more about them, please click on this post:
But Jesus was not reluctant to associate with them. We should not be afraid to do this, either.
Luke and Mark say that Levi (Matthew) prepared a great feast in his house (Mark 2:13-17; Luke 5:27-32). Once again, Matthew trims such details.
“sinners”: it is the adjective hamartōlos (pronounced hah-mahr-toh-loss and used 47 times and 6 times in Mark), and it means as I translated it. It is someone who does not observe the law, in this context. But let’s explore the term more thoroughly.
BDAG defines the adjective as follows: “pertaining to behavior or activity that does not measure up to standard moral or [religious] expectations (being considered an outsider because of failure to conform to certain standards is a frequent semantic component. Persons engaged in certain occupations, e.g. herding and tanning [and tax collecting] that jeopardized [religious] purity, would be considered by some as ‘sinners,’ a term tantamount to ‘outsider.’” Non-Israelites were especially considered out of bounds [see Acts 10:28].)” “Sinner, with a general focus on wrongdoing as such.” “Irreligious, unobservant people.” “Unobservant” means that the sinner did not care about law keeping or observing the law.
“recline”: that’s how they ate back then. Contrary to Da Vinci’s Last Supper, where everyone was sitting in chairs at a table, they used to lie on the floor with mats at a low table or maybe the food was on other mats, and their feet stuck out away from the table.
“disciples”: The noun is mathētēs (singular and pronounced mah-they-tayss), and it is used 261 times in the NT, though many of them are duplicates in the three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. BDAG says of the noun (1) “one who engages in learning through instruction from another, pupil, apprentice”; (2) “one who is rather constantly associated with someone who has a pedagogical reputation or a particular set of views, disciple, adherent.”
Wessel and Strauss on Levi’s call to discipleship and his acceptance:
The parallel call of the four fishermen in 1:16, 18, confirms that Levi’s call is one to discipleship. There was much at stake for Levi in accepting Jesus’s challenge. Fishermen could easily go back to fishing after taking a “leave of absence” (as some of the disciples did after Jesus’s crucifixion), but for Levi there would be little possibility of his returning to his occupation. No doubt his post would have been filled very soon after he left it, for jobs of tax collectors were highly sought after as sure ways to “get rich quick.”
So, Levi’s response to the call of Jesus cost him everything. However, I can imagine that Levi may have left the post to a relative, like a brother, and tell him to keep his spot. But Wessel and Strauss have a point. The call was costly, if Levi never did return. He was rich, but he responded. He gave up a lot.
“teachers of the law allied with the Pharisees”: The Greek literally says “teachers of the law of the Pharisees.” Apparently some teachers were allied with the Pharisees. Some teachers of the law were Pharisees, but not all Pharisees were teachers of the law, and not all teachers of the law were Pharisees. So some—not all—teachers of the law could be a subset of the Pharisees.
Wessel and Strauss write of v. 16 and table fellowship:
Table fellowship carried significance in the ancient world; to dine with someone meant acceptance of that person. That Jesus would include in his most intimate circle a man associated with such a disreputable profession and would sit at table with tax collectors and sinners was too much for the teachers of the law.
Meals were important social rituals in the ancient world, and one would normally eat only with those of similar social status. In Judaism a scrupulous Pharisee would never eat at the home of a common Israelite since he could not be sure that the food was ceremonially clean or that it had been tithed … He would especially not eat with a defiled and sinful tax collector. The Pharisees expect Jesus, a respectable rabbi, to act in the same exclusive manner.
For teachers of the law, click on the link, next, and see v. 6.
Who were the Pharisees? Click here to find out more about the the teachers of th law and Pharisees:
See v. 6 for how they too were the Watchdogs of Proper Behavior.
“sinners”: see v. 15 for more comments.
“tax collectors”: see v. 13 for more comments.
“disciples”: see v. 15 for more comments.
“I have come”: this is a statement of Jesus’s mission. Let’s not miss it. John’s Gospel adds that Jesus came from heaven, while Matthew, Mark and Luke merely hint at it. The Father is behind it all.
“healthy”: it could be translated as “strong.” This is a proverb circulating at the time, and Jesus transforms it into a righteous / sinner contrast.
“sick”: the adverb is kakōs (pronounced kah-kohss), and it is the standard word in its various forms for “bad” or even “evil.” It can be translated more literally as “having ‘badness.’” We should not see this one word in this one verse as moral sickness, but the term does mean that in other verses, more often than not.
“righteous”: first, some interpreters say that certain people are righteous in their behavior. Paul testified that before he came to Christ he kept the law blamelessly and was faultlessly righteous in the law’s terms (Phil. 3:4-6). The law, particularly the Ten Commandments, are not that difficult to keep, particularly for the extra-scrupulous and those with a naturally disciplined personality. Paul was an ex-Pharisee, much like the ones at this feast. I have no doubt that he kept the law, outwardly. Even “Average Joes and Janes” don’t steal or commit perjury or commit adultery, nor do they make images of gods. They can live free from coveting their neighbors’ possessions, in outward appearance. This interpretation says that Jesus was not calling the Pharisees to repentance, because they were indeed righteous on a social level and by outward appearance, but he was calling the sinners and tax collectors to repent. Note, however, that Jesus did in fact call Levi, and not the Pharisees.
Second, some interpreters say he is using irony. The issue is of the heart. Jesus deepens the requirements and turns them into love for God first. If we love God, we will keep his commandments (John 14:15). In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) and on the Plain (Luke 6:17-49), Jesus deepens the requirements of the law to the heart, and everyone fails in some way. Therefore, they are unhealthy in some way before God and need him through Christ. No one can be righteous enough for God, and if the Pharisees saw their own need, they would realize this. It is they who need the doctor—the healer of their souls. Jesus is calling them to repentance, if they could only see it.
My preference: the second interpretation, with some truths in the first one. All Jews, even the extra-devout, need Jesus their Messiah.
“call”: Jesus’s call goes out to anyone who sees his need for the kingdom and the King. Anyone can respond. But if anyone thinks he is self-sufficiently healthy, then he probably won’t respond to the call.
GrowApp for Mark 2:13-17
A.. Jesus called Levi. Levi responded with yes. How did you respond when Jesus called you? Did you hesitate or follow him immediately? What was conversion like? Tell your story.
The Question about Fasting (Mark 2:18-22)
18 Now there were disciples of John and the Pharisees fasting. Some people came and said to Jesus, “Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but the disciples belonging to you do not fast?” 19 Jesus said to them, “The friends of the bridegroom, while the bridegroom is with them, cannot fast, can they? For as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and at that time they will fast on that day.
21 “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise, the whole patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and the tear becomes worse. 22 And no one puts new wine in old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will tear the wineskins, and the wine and wineskins are ruined, but new wine is for new wineskins.”
Three analogies from everyday life:
The first (a wedding celebration) illustrates a time of celebration, not solemnity. The second and third (a new patch on old clothing and new wine in old wineskins) explains the nature and significance of this celebration. The kingdom of God is inaugurating a new age of salvation that is fundamentally incompatible with the old. Jesus is not here to put a patch on Judaism, but to inaugurate the new creation (Strauss, p. 137).
In the previous pericope or section, the Pharisees criticized Jesus’s behavior because he ate with tax collectors and sinners. The disciples of John did not like Jesus’s apparent free-wheeling and free-dealing license of living it up, while the disciples of John and the Pharisees don’t do such frivolous things. They fast and offer prayers. Fasting was commanded on special occasions (Lev. 16:29-34; 23:26-32; Num. 29:7-11). Individual fasts were done for God’s deliverance (2 Sam. 12:16-20; 1 Kings 21:27; Ps. 35:13; 69:10). Others fasted to turn aside calamity (Judg. 20:26; 1 Sam. 7:6; 1 Kings 21:9; Jer. 36:6, 9; 2 Chron. 20:3-4). Isaiah said fasting should be done accompanied by justice and good works and releasing those in bondage (Is. 58).
“disciples”: see v. 15 for more comments.
Wessel and Strauss teach us that Pharisees fasted twice a week, on Monday and Thursday (see Luke 18:12) (p. 732).
Another difficulty: Pharisees were a sect and did not gather disciples as such. In reply, some Pharisees were also scribes (teachers of the law), who had disciples. Further here the term is used in a nontechnical sense to refer to people who were “influenced by the teaching and practice of the Pharisees” (Wessel and Strauss, p. 732). “Yet many Pharisees were also scribes, or experts in the law (see 2:16), and so the reference is likely to younger Pharisees who had attached themselves to distinguished rabbis” (Strauss).
Let’s look more generally at the practice of fasting from a biblical point of view. There are all sorts of ways to fast:
Eating no food, but drinking water, which is standard;
No food and no water, but only for a short time (Acts 9:9);
No delicacies (Dan. 10:3);
And anything in between.
In the OT the purposes of fasting were as follows:
Preparing for God’s law (Ex. 34:28; Dt. 9:9, 18);
Preparing for the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29, 31);
Showing grief at time of death (1 Sam. 31:13; 2 Sam. 1:12);
Showing remorse for sin (1 Kings 21:27; Neh. 9:1; Ps. 35:13);
Praying in time of national need (2 Chron. 20:3; Ezr. 8:21; Est. 4:16; Joel 2:15-17);
Praying for personal reasons (2 Sam. 12:16, 21; Neh. 1:4; Dan. 9:3-4);
But be warned: prophets criticized fasting for outward show (Is. 58:3-7; Jer. 14:12; Zec. 7:4-10).
In the NT, the purposes of fasting were as follows:
Jesus fasted to overcome temptation and prepare for his ministry (Matt. 4:1-11 // Luke 4:1-13);
Saul fasted after his conversion to humble himself and work out the massive change in his worldview (Acts 9:9);
Part of worship (Acts 13:2);
Preparing for ministry (Acts 13:1-3; 14:23);
Sending off for ministry (Acts 13:3; 14:23);
Jesus’s disciples did not fast while he was there, but when he was gone, they would fast (Matt. 9:14-15);
Jesus criticized fasting for its outward show (Matt. 6:16-18; Luke 18:9-14).
You can look up those verses to expand on those reasons. It is interesting, however, that nowhere does it say in the NT that believers should fast to prove their remorse and sorrow for sin. Forgiveness is not added to or enhanced by our outer show of works (fasting is a religious work). Forgiveness of sins is received by repentance and faith in Jesus (Acts 13:38).
In this section about the old and the new, from here on, Jesus will be the center of these illustrations. He will be the bridegroom and the new.
Jesus is the bridegroom. The kingdom of God has broken through, by his coming. While he is with the friends of the bridegrooms (literally “sons”), it would be out of place for them to be severe and austere with fastings and offering prayers of pleading and begging. It is time to celebrate. In Greek the question is formulated to expect the answer, “No, no one can make them fast.”
Strauss insightfully points out:
Jesus does not reject fasting as a spiritual discipline (cf. Matt. 6:6-18). Rather, he is giving an object lesson about the kingdom of God. A wedding celebration was the greatest celebratory event of Palestinian village life, and everyone anticipated the arrival of the bride and the groom with joy and excitement. In the same way, the coming of the Messiah—the bridegroom at the messianic banquet—was the most exciting and anticipated event in human history. Since the fall of Adam and Eve, all creation had languished in sin, death, and decay. But God is now stepping in to begin restoring creation to its intended destiny. This is not time for gloom and doom; it time to throw a party!” (p. 140).
So when will the bridegroom be taken? It is his death on the cross and burial in the tomb. The disciples were scared. Would they also be arrested, as revolutionaries? No doubt they fasted, though not ritually, and offered prayers. The point is that the celebrations were about to be over. Now what happens at the resurrection and the ascension? They had to get on with the work of preaching Jesus and the kingdom of God. Then it will be time for regular fasting and prayer.
Let’s take a step back. The image of the groom and wedding often comes in the context of messianic times (Is. 54:5-6; 62:4-5; Jer. 2:2; Ezek. 16; Hos. 2:14-23). Even in Judaism at the time of Jesus the association between the metaphor of wedding and the Messianic Age was known. God is portrayed as the bridegroom of his people. Fasting was appropriate to usher in the Messianic Age, but now it is here. No need to fast to bring it in. Jesus is hinting—for those with enough biblical knowledge—that the Messiah is right here, in front of them. While he is, let’s celebrate. Mark and other NT authors use the “already” and “not yet” aspect of the kingdom through the wedding and marriage imagery. It is already here, but it is not here in its fulness: (Luke 12:35-36; Matt. 22:1; 25:1; Eph. 5:23-33; Rev. 19:7; 21:2). Those verses in the Revelation describe the kingdom that is here in its fulness.
“The closest parallel may be Isa. 53:8, where it is said of the suffering Servant, ‘By oppression and judgment he was taken away’” (Strauss). The LXX (the third-to-first-century translation of the Hebrew Bible into English) says the verb is airō (pronounced eye-roh), which is similar to the verb used in v. 20: apairō (pronounced ah-pie-roh), which is more forceful.
The next illustration is designed to look absurd. It seems to appear out of nowhere, but it has a point. No one puts an unshrunk patch on an old garment.
In this verse, the new and the old don’t fit or match. Jesus is the new, and the old is Judaism and the old law. The way of the Pharisees, with their interpretations and maintaining the traditions—one interpretation piled on top of another—has to be thrown out. Or at least the new garment cannot be used to repair the old. There’s a mismatch.
Wineskins were made of treated and groomed animal skins, and the neck of the animal was used for the opening of the large container. Two animal skins were sewn together (Josh. 9:13; Job 32:19; Jer. 13:12; Hab. 2:15). After a while, the skin became brittle. Putting new wine, which expanded with fermentation, would burst the old brittle skin.
Obvious parallel: Jesus is the new wine, and old Judaism is the brittle wineskin. God is doing a new thing. You see, you have to imagine Pharisees and teachers of the law going about the country and into towns—sometimes living in them—dishing out rules and regulations on how to keep the law. As noted, they read their history in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). They knew that God had judged their nation because the ancient Israelites broke the laws of the covenant (together called the law of Moses). So their motives were honorable. But things just got too complicated.
Now Jesus comes along, to take God’s way with man in a new direction. He is currently ushering in the new kingdom, the new covenant. God is in the process of leaving behind the old. With the cross, the resurrection and the ascension, the departure from the old will be completed, and the new direction will go full force.
Ten Commandments: God’s Great Compromise with Humanity’s Big Failure (for the biblically mature)
Jesus’s point here is that old Judaism is on the way out. In the Gospel of Mark, when national Israel rejects its Messiah, God will place Judaism and the whole Levitical system under judgment (Luke 19:41-45; 21:20-24; 23:26-31; Matt. 21:33-45), though numerous individual priests (Acts 6:7) and thousands of Jews of Jerusalem and Judea converted to their Messiah (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 21:20). God loves people, but he is not enamored with systems.
New wine is for a new container. Discard the old, brittle container. The old religious system and the establishment in Jerusalem will keep the old because it is comforting and intoxicating. However, it is better to choose the new wine. It will open up a greater horizon as to who God is.
GrowApp for Mark 2:18-22
A.. God sometimes has to take the old things away from you. What are the old things you had to give up in order to follow Jesus?
B.. Have you fasted? Did you give up food? Social media? Entertainment?
Plucking Grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28)
23 And it happened on the Sabbath that he was going along through a grain field, and his disciples began to make their way, plucking heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees were saying to him, “Look! Why do they do on the Sabbath what is not lawful?” 25 He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he had need and he himself was hungry and those with him, 26 how he went into the house of God at the time of Abiathar the high priest and ate the bread of Presence, which was not lawful to eat, except for the priests, and he also gave some to those who were with him?” 27 He said to them, “The Sabbath was made because of the person, not the person because of the Sabbath. 28 So then the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
The law allowed for a man to walk through his neighbor’s grain field and pluck the heads with his hands for a little food, but not with a sickle (Deut. 23:25). But the disciples were doing this on the Sabbath.
The Sabbath was the fourth commandment of the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:8-11 and Deut. 5:12-15), but those verses do not describe how to keep it. In Num. 15:32-38, people found a man gathering wood, and Moses ordered them to stone him to death. So what kind of interpretations can come from that illegal act and punishment? Was plucking heads of grain the same thing? But the disciples—not Jesus, incidentally—were eating them, so does that excuse them, since they were saving their own lives (if we stretch things)? Apparently not, because healing on the Sabbath was questionable behavior, too. Or in the next passage, maybe the man with the withered hand was not in a life-or-death situation, while the disciples were.
Here are the Mishnah’s thirty-nine categories of work that were not allowed. This comes from the second century, but it probably reflects the times of Jesus:
- Sowing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, and baking.
- Shearing wool, bleaching, hackling, dyeing, spinning, stretching the threads, the making of two meshes, weaving two threads, dividing two threads, tying [knotting] and untying, sewing two stitches, and tearing in order to sew two stitches.
- Capturing a deer, slaughtering, or flaying, or salting it, curing its hide, scraping it [of its hair], cutting it up, writing two letters, and erasing in order to write two letters [over the erasure].
- Building, pulling down, extinguishing, kindling, striking with a hammer, and carrying out from one domain to another.
These are the forty primary labors less one.
The rest of the tractate goes on to define the parameters more precisely.
Religious teachers debated these issues endlessly. In effect, these strict teachers of the law said it was better that people should virtually do nothing on the Sabbath. It is better to be safe than sorry, to be severe and austere than risk too much questionable behavior before a holy God. And plucking and rubbing and eating and walking on the Sabbath was just too risky, as if the disciples were harvesting, like the executed man had been gathering (= harvesting?) wood. Jesus and his crew were walking on the tightrope between breaking the Sabbath and breaking the interpretations of the religious leaders. Today we could perhaps argue over whether Jesus really did break it from a human point of view, but not from a divine one, because he was Lord of the Sabbath.
Commentator R. T. France says that the Jews agreed that the Sabbath should be kept, but they did not agree on what work was, though the religious leaders were very strict. France adds this insight to the above-described background:
It is against this background that we must understand the conflicts which arose between Jesus and the Pharisees over the sabbath. It is not that there was no room for debate and for development of the sabbath halakhah [legal aspects of the Torah]; debate was still continuing even within Pharisaism (not to mention the more stringent interpretations of Qumran). The problem appears to be that Jesus did not debate, but simply brushed aside the whole complex of sabbath prohibitions with sweeping generalisations which seemed to make the whole discussion unnecessary. There is no indication that Jesus either rejected the sabbath law as such, or questioned that the sabbath was intended as a day of cessation from work. But his understanding of what was and was not permissible did not coincide with current interpretation, and yet was asserted with a sovereign assurance which raised sharply the issue of halakhic authority.
In church debates today, we question flashing lights, worship leaders bouncing on the platform, and tight clothes which women (and men) wear, particularly the women who dance, and holey jeans. Just now on Christian TV a woman was speaking on the platform and wore extra-tight pants. Right or wrong? Holey = unholy? That depends on how strict you are. Extra-strict believers say innovation is wrong, while the “freer” ones say, “go for it! These issues have to be hammered out about every decade.
Apparently, the Pharisees were following Jesus’s company around, or maybe the Pharisees saw them at the edge of the grain field and were waiting for them to come out. Stalking, anyone?
“Look!” this translates the older “behold.” It signals the reader to pay attention or to observe a new development. Here the Pharisees are asking Jesus to pay attention to what his disciples are doing.
“disciples”: see v. 15 for more comments.
“At the time of Abiathar the high priest”: this is a general reference of time: Abiathar is best known as high priest, even though it has technically his father Ahimelech who was the high priest at the time of the event (Decker, p. 65). Son of the high priest and the high priest himself was a flexible designation.
Wessel and Strauss write of the discrepancy between Abiathar here and Ahimelech in 1 Sam. 21:
In defense of Mark’s historicity, however, the text does not actually say that David came to Abiathar, but that these events occurred … “in the [time] of Abiathar, the high priest” … Abiathar is closely linked with David during David’s reign, so his mention could constitute a general reference to that period. A similar reference appears in Luke 3:2, where both Annas and Caiaphas are identified as high priests during Jesus’s ministry. Though Caiaphas was the official high priest, his father-in-law Annas—earlier deposed by the Romans—wielded enormous influence overt he priesthood. (Five of his sons and one son-in-law served as high priests after him.) Another possibility is to translated the preposition epi [pronounced eh-pea] as “in the account of,” as is done in Mark 12:26 … (“in the account of the bush”). First Samuel 21-22 could be called “the account of Abiathar,” since it was he who escaped to David when the priests were massacred at Nob (22:20). Either of these solutions is possible, though neither is entirely satisfactory. We must admit we simply do not know what meaning Mark intended.
Just before that long excerpt, Wessel and Strauss admit that Mark may have made an honest mistake. But then they defend his historicity with the long excerpt.
Let’s tentatively and delicately explore the possibility that Mark made an honest mistake. We can see a comparison in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. He is writing under the inspiration of the Spirit:
14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel. (1 Cor. 1:14-17, NIV).
In vv. 14-15, Paul made a statement about whom he baptized, but in v. 16 he realizes his mistake and corrects himself. To be picky about it, Paul made an honest mistake of memory. But an honest mistake does not lead to the collapse of Paul’s main message in those verses and nor to our tossing out his letter to the Corinthians and certainly not to walking away from entire Bible. That response is too drastic and disproportionate. And so it is with the reference to the time of Abiathar the high priest. An honest mistake does not lead to a misunderstanding of this passage in Mark. The essence of the pericope is clear: Jesus reinterpreted the Sabbath in his own way. For me, these Scriptural examples do not take away from the infallibility and inspiration of Scripture.
The larger point is that no one’s faith in the Lord should be so brittle that it snaps in two whenever these textual differences or discrepancies appear. We are simply examining a passage in the OT where the high priesthood was within a family and the term is familial and flexible. Faith in the resurrection of Jesus, his Lordship, and his Sonship—his divine status—does not hinge on whether it was Abiathar or Ahimelech. The whole of the four Gospels moves towards the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and proclaims his Lordship and Sonship; the truths of the four Gospels do not stand or fall on these tiny elements in various passages. We must teach the new generation coming up not to have such brittle faith but to keep the plain thing the main thing—his resurrection, his Lordship, and his Sonship. Those three truths are the foundation of our salvation.
See these posts in a fifteen-part series on the reliability of the Gospels:
14. Similarities among John’s Gospel and the Synoptic Gospels (celebrate the countless numbers of similarities in the arc of the storyline!)
15. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels: Conclusion (start here for summaries of each part with links back to them)
There are two extremes in the battle for the Bible. One is “total inerrancy,” a term that devout theologians and Christian philosophers came up with in 1974 to describe the Bible. Then they and others wrote up a document called “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” (1978) (It is available online). The problem is that the Statement’s drafters attached so many exceptions in their articles that it is difficult to believe that “total” means much. The other extreme is seen in the post-Enlightenment (≈1600-1800+), postmodern (today) hyper-critics who gleefully make too much of unanswered questions. Both extremes place unreasonably heavy demands on documents that are two thousand years old (at least), before the Gutenberg press was invented in the mid-1400s.
I urge a more balanced and realistic approach to the authority and inspiration and infallibility of Scripture. For salvation and faith in Christ and discipleship in him, the Bible is absolutely infallible and inspired and authoritative. On incidental matters and history, it is highly reliable and accurate (e.g. Jerusalem is in the south and Galilee is in the north; ancient civilizations like Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon really existed and struggled with and influenced ancient Israel; Baal really was a pagan deity; Rome dominated first-century Israel, and thousands of other examples). So let’s learn deep, life-changing truths from Scripture and apply them to our lives. Let’s be confident in Scripture in its historical and cultural data. But let’s not place heavy, anachronistic, and modern demands on it. And our faith must not snap in two when tiny, nonessential details don’t quite add up.
‘Total’ Inerrancy and Infallibility or Just Infallibility? (my high view of Scripture and an overview of the Battle for the Bible)
The Battle for the Bible is an American issue. I encourage all Christians outside of America not to get involved with it.
Now let’s move on.
It was the bread of the Presence (of the Lord). Twelve loaves were stacked up in two stacks of six, put out fresh each Sabbath. Indeed, only the priests were allowed to eat it.
The story of David and his men doing this is found in 1 Samuel 21:1-6 and 22:9-10. In the first passage, David is not shown to have entered the tabernacle, but neither is he said to stand outside. Jesus is paraphrasing the scene in the OT. David did break the rule. The logic is obvious: David was the greatest king, and the Pharisees were much less than he, so they should stop judging Jesus and his disciples. If you condemn the disciples, you should condemn the greatest king. Jesus is greater than his accusers. It was David as he who took action, and now Jesus places his own authority on the same level as David’s. Jesus is acting outside of religious tradition, and the leaders of this tradition resented it. Matthew will say that Jesus is greater than David (Matt. 22:41-46). He had to go—be killed, eliminated.
In an extra-strict religious environment, this is a remarkable statement. In these few words, first he says that he is greater than David, because in 1 Sam. 21:1-6 David submitted to the priest and asked for food. The priest gave the bread to David, who did not refuse it, even though he knew it was consecrated. However, David never said that he was the Lord of the consecrated bread and of Lev. 24:5-9. Second, Jesus proclaimed that he was the Lord of the Sabbath, when that sacred day is listed in the mighty Ten Commandments. He owned the Sabbath; it did not own him. He stood above the Sabbath, it did not hang over his head like the sword of Damocles.
According to France, Jesus overturned the apple cart in this way:
The relevance of the text to the specific issue raised is not immediately obvious (other than that it relates a previous breach of the law, which is hardly in itself justification for a further infringement!). David acted as he did [when he had need and was hungry], but Mark (unlike Matthew) has not indicated any particular need on the part of Jesus and his disciples. Nor does either the account in 1 Sa. 21 or Jesus’ summary of it mention that David did this on the sabbath, though this is a fair inference from the mention in 1 Sa. 21:6 of the removal and replacement of the bread, which was a sabbath duty (Lv. 24:8). The nature of the ‘illegality’ in David’s case, using for himself and his men sacred food which was reserved to the use of priests, was not directly comparable to what Jesus’ disciples were doing. The question is not in any case whether the specific action could or could not be declared legitimate; it was rather, as vv. 27–28 will make clear, whether Jesus had the right to override the agreed conventions, in his capacity as [Lord of the Sabbath].
The focus of the scriptural allusion is not therefore so much on what David did, as on the fact that it was David who did it, and that Scripture records his act, illegal as it was, with apparent approval. The logic of Jesus’ argument therefore implies a covert claim to a personal authority at least as great as that of David. Matthew has clearly understood the pericope in that way, and includes a parallel argument from the ‘defilement of the sabbath’ by the priests in pursuing their temple duties, on the grounds that [something greater than the temple is here] (Mt. 12:6; cf. the similar formula in 12:41, 42).
In an extra-strict religious environment, this is a remarkable statement. In these few words, first he says that he is greater than David, because in 1 Sam. 21:1-6 David submitted to the priest high priest and asked for food. The high priest gave the bread to David, who did not refuse it, even though he knew it was consecrated. However, David never said that he was the Lord of the consecrated bread and of Lev. 24:5-9. Second, Jesus proclaimed that he was the Lord of the Sabbath, when that sacred day is listed in the mighty Ten Commandments. He owned the Sabbath; it did not own him. He stood above the Sabbath, it did not hang over his head like the sword of Damocles.
His declaration must have stunned the Pharisees to silence.
“Son of Man”: see vv. 10-11 for more comments
For a discussion about the verbal sparring match between Jesus and these religious leaders, please see v. 8.
Wessel and Strauss write of Jesus’s pronouncement about the purpose of the Sabbath:
Jesus concludes with a double pronouncement. The first affirms that the Sabbath was not created for its own sake; it was a gift of God to human beings. Its purpose was not to put people in a kind of straightjacket. It was for their good—to provide rest from labor and opportunity for worship (see Ex. 23:12; Dt. 5:14).
GrowApp for Mark 2:23-28
A.. Have religious leaders told you that a ritual or your appearance was unacceptable? How did you respond?
Summary and Conclusion
This whole chapter, including Mark 3:1-6, lays out five confrontations with religious leaders, who were stricter than Jesus was in maintaining their standards that had built up over the centuries. They piled on oral traditions on top of more oral traditions and had buried the original Torah under them. Jesus was sweeping all of it aside, without asking their permission and not staying within the boundaries they had laid out. He was fearless.
See the comments at v. 8 for the context of an honor-and-shame society and Jesus was not going to back down from a public confrontation.
In the first pericope, he blew the minds of the teacher of the law. Yes, a priest could pronounce a man forgiven after the acceptable animal sacrifice. Nathan pronounced David’s sins forgiven on his repentance, but here Jesus proclaims that “the Son of Man’s authority is equivalent to that which the Father exercises in heaven. Through the Son of Man, God’s heavenly forgiveness has now come to earth” (Strauss).
The calling of Levi was miraculous because he had to give up everything. Someone else would have taken the job to get rich quick. Matthew says the man was also named Matthew—himself. Now we know that Matthew really did give up everything to follow Jesus. People have to be willing to give up the things that they cling to, when those things hinder them from entering the kingdom. Don’t reach a difficult point in your life where you suffer and then surrender those obstacles to the kingdom. Do it now. “But he might send me overseas to a remote village as a missionary!” But he might not, and probably won’t. Matt. 25:15 says he distributes talents according to the servants’ ability. If you have it in your heart to be a soccer mom, then be that, and be the best you can be at raising your child. Another theme in the pericope about Levi’s calling is the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees, who were overly concerned that Jesus, a rabbi (or perceived as one), would associate at a dinner table with tax collectors and other unscrupulous persons, perhaps landowners who oppressed his farmers and looked for ways to get out of paying his tax-tithe. Jesus was willing to break down these social norms that were imposed on religious leaders of his day.
Next, why don’t Jesus’s disciples fast, while the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees do? Shouldn’t Jesus and his followers be so much more serious? No, and he explains why from a common image (and reality) in an Israelite village—a wedding ceremony. It’s psychologically impossible for the friends (Jesus’s followers) of the bridegroom (Jesus) to fast and look somber and behave austerely, while the bridegroom is with him. They do just the opposite! They celebrate! Then when he is taken away at the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, they can fast and get down to business and fast sometimes: “When you fast” (Matt. 6:16-18). And other times they can celebrate, like at a wedding! Then Jesus expands the lesson to inform the religious objectors that he is moving on from them and old Judaism, established by Moses himself! No more rituals, no more traditions. Moral law, yes, because it was God’s gift to humanity before the law of Moses. But no more religious laws. No one can sew an unshrunk or untreated patch on an old garment. Jesus and the kingdom are the new patch, and the old garment is the old temple system. And the same goes for the old wineskins containing new wine. The old wineskin is brittle, while the new wine naturally ferments and expands. Therefore, the old, brittle wineskin breaks open. Time to move forward with a new wineskin—new inside the new, the new for the new.
Finally, the Pharisees objected to the disciples plucking the heads of grain in a grain field: on the Sabbath. This was equivalent to reaping or harvesting apparently, which was work. The disciples could not buy bread on the Sabbath, because that would mean the bread seller would have to work! They certainly did not make preparations on Friday afternoon for this eventuality. So did they have to go hungry? How hungry were they? When did they last eat? Maybe some of the men would have fainted along the way. In defense of his disciples, Jesus referenced David who broke the law by eating bread reserved only for priests, and Jesus approved of it, too. The key term is “hungry.” David and Jesus’s disciples were hungry, but were they starving to death? Perhaps some would have fainted, or not. They skirted the borders between preserving life (relieving hunger by eating bread) and ultra-strictly obeying the Sabbath. Jesus sided with his men, on the basis of their hunger. Don’t be overly scrupulous. Honor life over restrictive laws that hinder life.
Commentator Lane caps off this pericope and Jesus’s Lordship with these words:
Reflection on Jesus’ act and word, through which he established the true intention of the Sabbath and exposed the weakness of a human system of fencing the Law with restrictions, revealed his sovereign authority over the Sabbath itself. With this word, Mark drives home for his readers the theological point of the pericope. These things were written that they may understand Jesus’ true dignity: he is Lord of the Sabbath. (p. 120)
As a life-long learner, I refer to a community of Bible teachers. They are much farther down to road in understanding the Scriptures than I am. They are excellent, but too technical for the laity. I hope I simplified things. I also write from a Renewal perspective.
Decker, Rodney J. Mark 1-8: A Handbook on the Greek Text (Baylor UP, 2014).
France, R. T. The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Eerdmans, 2002).
Garland, David E. Mark: The NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan, 1996).
Lane, William L. Mark: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes (Eerdmans, 1974).
Strauss, Mark L. Mark: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Zondervan, 2014).
The Greek New Testament. Fifth Revised Edition by Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger (United Bible Society, 1993).
Wessel, Walter W. and Mark L. Strauss. Mark: The Bible’s Expositor’s Commentary, Vol. 9, Rev. ed. (Zondervan 2010).