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Commentary on the Gospel of Mark

by Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD

The Author.

The Gospel was written by John Mark who, as a young man, had probably himself known the Lord Jesus Christ personally for a brief time on His visits to Jerusalem (inferred from Acts 12.12), and had spent some considerable time with all the Apostles and especially with both Peter (1 Peter 5.13) and Paul (Colossians 4.10; 2 Timothy 4.11), listening to their preaching and especially to their testimony to Jesus. During this time he would have heard Peter and other eyewitnesses again and again describe events and teaching from the life of Jesus. And this not in some informal way, but in a deliberate formatting of events in such a way as to be remembered and repeated, for this kind of information was the life blood of the early church.

Papias in the second century AD tells us that, ‘Mark, who was Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, all that he (Peter) recollected of what Christ had done’. Indications can regularly be found in Mark’s Gospel suggestive of an eyewitness, although in such a way as to suggest that it was simply writer’s licence. Rather it was in a way which suggests that it was almost unconscious. Paul also would have made himself familiar with such things and would have passed them on to him, and we should note that Paul is always careful to distinguish what is based on the Lord’s words and what is not (1 Corinthians 7.12; 2 Corinthians 11.17). What the Lord had specifically said was considered as divine truth, as the equivalent of Scripture, and was remembered as such.

We must remember that from the moment that three thousand people from around the Empire had been converted on the day of Pentecost, accurate teaching about ‘the Testimony of Jesus’ would have been demanded and required. All the new converts would have needed to know something about His life and teaching, and those with minds like Paul’s would not have been satisfied with just anything. And the further the message spread the more accurate information would continue to be required, for it was from this that men would come to know more intimately the Jesus in whom they had come to believe. As Papias makes clear the very words of the Apostles were eagerly sought after for this reason.

Thus from the very beginning incidents in the life of Jesus would have become described in a form that would soon become standardised and deliberately preserved, following early Rabbinic pattern, to be memorised and accurately passed on, and to be proclaimed alongside the (Old Testament) Scriptures. For they would already be seen as ranking alongside the Scriptures and as having at least equivalent value to Christians as the Teaching of the Elders had to the Pharisees. And the fact that they were mainly to begin with passed on in oral form would mean that they were put in such a form as to be easily remembered (as Jesus had put His words in the same way). There would be great concern for the accurate passing on of His life and words. The people did not want to know interesting stories, they wanted to know the truth. It is also inconceivable that some of these standardised forms were not written down (Luke 1.1), even if this were only in order to communicate it to others at a distance. So Mark would have plenty of material to work with, and could check for accuracy with Peter himself.

Mark was cousin (or nephew) to Barnabas. His Gospel is written in the common Greek of the area and bears evidence of a Jewish background. We can hardly doubt that the collection of the materials, their recording in writing and their putting together in a reasonably consecutive narrative took place over a number of years, and this was almost certainly at times in discussion with Peter and other eyewitnesses. But they would not necessarily be (and were not) chronological in every detail - what mattered was presenting the material and getting over the message indicated in them. Exact chronology was of less importance except where it was necessary to preserve the truth.

The Purpose of The Gospel.

In the Gospel the historical material is brought together with the intention of presenting Jesus Christ in the fullness of His glory. It is not a life story, written out of academic interest, nor, except in general outline, a chronological history, but the reverent recording of truth about Jesus and His teaching that was carefully remembered and passed on by those who knew Him (who were skilled at memorising) because of Who He was, put together in order to present the truth about Him. The purpose was in order to demonstrate that He was what they had come to know Him to be. But there is no extravagance in the descriptions (this lack of extravagance is a distinctive feature of the four Gospels), they are sensible, deliberate, and even under-stated.

As the Apostles spoke they would be aware that others who knew the facts were listening to, and judging, what they said, and in view of the importance attached to the exact words of Jesus, as demonstrated by Paul’s letters, it would have been important to remember them exactly. This was aided by the fact that Jesus had deliberately taught in such a way as to assist the memory. As John expresses it elsewhere, ‘what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have gazed on and our hands have handled concerning the Word of life -- we declare to you’ (1 John 1.1-3).

The World Into Which Jesus Went Out To Proclaim the Kingly Rule of God.

The commencement of Jesus’ ministry was in Galilee. Galilee was a smallish mountainous conclave set on its own to the north of Palestine surrounded on all sides by Samaritans and Gentiles, and separated from Judea by Samaria. It was a self-sufficient and fertile land and its fertility was made full use of by its industrious people. It was from a knowledge of the land and its farmers that Jesus obtained much of His preaching material. It was far from being just a smaller version of Judea. The people were a mixture and more cosmopolitan and many of them had been forced into Judaism a century before Christ when Galilee was ‘liberated’ by Jewish forces. All who had then wanted to remain there had had to be circumcised and live according to Jewish Law. Thus in its own way it had formed its own fanatical Jewish beliefs shaped by its own environment.

Its type of religious orthodoxy was frowned on by Jerusalem, and while the peoples of both spoke Aramaic, the language of these peoples was as distinct from each other as is that of, say, the Southern states of America as compared with UK English, with many variations in pronunciation and meaning. Similarly in a small country like the UK itself we can find many regional variations, even in spite of modern communications, and we only have to compare broad Scots ‘English’ with English as spoken in England to evidence this. To an Englishman broad Scots English is almost impossible to understand, and by some might even be looked down on. And in precisely the same way Galileans would often be jeered at when they visited Jerusalem, which they did regularly for the feasts, and they were instantly recognisable because of their speech (see for example Matthew 26.73). They blurred the distinctions between the guttural pronunciation of certain letters and were seen as being like someone using English who drops his aitches. Thus their speech could sometimes be misunderstood, often causing great hilarity, and no little contempt.

It is easy for us to tend to assume that those who spoke and wrote in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek were all using the same languages, and while true in general, it is in fact far from true in detail, and indeed Mark’s koine (popular) Greek was very different from classical Greek, while Luke used different forms of Greek for different sections of his writings. Speaking loosely we could say that Luke used Septuagintal Greek in Luke 1-2, Aramaic Greek in Acts 1-15 and a form of classical Greek elsewhere. In the same way Galilean Aramaic differed from Judean Aramaic, and we are still far from knowing quite by how much.

We can compare how to a non-English speaker all English might appear to be the same. This reminds me of how, when I was lecturing in Hong Kong, a Chinese student expressed her puzzlement to me over why it was that all Western lecturers, American, English and Australian, all spoke with the same accent! I could hardly believe my ears. Those who have not studied the use of the languages tend to think the same about Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew. Reading some commentaries (which are trying to be helpful in bringing out meanings) we can begin to wonder why English could not be as specific and exact as Greek and Hebrew clearly were, but in fact they are not always so (ordinary readers of English versions of the Hebrew text would probably be amazed, and often dumbfounded, if they read a translation which was made literally word for word).

In religious matters Galilee was far more liberal than Jerusalem and Judea, and its orthodoxy, while being acceptable in general, was nevertheless viewed with some suspicion by the Jewish authorities. So by being Galilean Jesus started off at a disadvantage as far the Jerusalem Pharisees were concerned. Certainly in some ways Galileans could be laxer with regard to cultic requirements, while in others they could actually be more dogmatic. They did not always see eye to eye with their Jerusalem counterparts. For example, from later Rabbinical sources we know that Hanina ben Dosa, a Galilean Rabbi, was criticised for walking alone in the streets at night, and Yose the Galilean, another Galilean Rabbi, was rebuked by a woman for engaging in too long a conversation with her when he was asking the way. Both these acts would have been frowned on in Jerusalem.

But we must not overstate the differences. It is noteworthy that with rare exceptions Jesus was never Himself criticised by the Pharisees, even the Jerusalem Rabbis, about His general observance of Pharisaic requirements, even though His disciples were. He may have been willing to eat with tax gatherers and ‘sinners’ (ordinary people who were laxer with regard to ritual and laws of ‘cleanliness’ and did not tithe sufficiently) but that did not mean that He was lax Himself in observing the proper requirements. It was only some (although not all) of His disciples who were accused of not ritually ‘washing their hands’ (7.2). He was clearly well aware of Pharisaic requirements and in most cases scrupulously sought Himself to avoid unnecessary offence. Had He been constantly criticised for it there was no reason why the Gospel writers should have hidden the fact. Indeed it would have been a powerful weapon against the Judaisers. (But see Luke 11.38, which may, however, have had specific intent, for He knew that on the whole they were there to test Him out).

The truth is that He had regard for the religious feelings of others. And when He was criticised on certain points He always cited a Scriptural reason, and it was always for the good of people generally, for He would not allow cultic requirements to cause people unnecessary suffering and He had little time for over-exactness with regard to interpretation especially when accompanied by glaring misbehaviour in other spheres (Matthew 23.24). It was not therefore that He totally condemned the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees, but that He subjected it to a criticism and scrutiny for which they were not prepared, and required too much of them by arguing that mercy and compassion were more important than the minutiae of ritual (Matthew 9.13; 12.7). Assiduously keeping to their ritual (ritual hand-washing, strict Sabbath observance, avoiding what was ‘ritually unclean’, in depth tithing, etc) had become more important to many of them than revealing goodness, kindness and compassion. They thus felt that He was undermining their beliefs and the confidence of the ordinary people in them. But Jesus did not condemn them for their assiduousness. What He condemned them for was their hardness of heart, and their lack of appreciation that what they demanded was not always possible for ordinary people.

Indeed Jesus taught His followers in general to observe basic Scribal and Pharisaic teaching (Matthew 23.3). What He wanted them to avoid was the hypocrisy of many of them, especially the more extreme (Matthew 23.24). For, as even the Pharisees themselves acknowledged, there were a number of different types of Pharisee, and it was probably the more extreme who constantly tangled with Jesus. Thus Jesus defended those of His followers who were criticised because He felt that the accusers were themselves guilty of being two faced and were going outside the intentions of the Law. We must not, however, assume that all Pharisees would have agreed with all the accusations hurled at Him, and indeed many later became His followers. Nevertheless it cannot be gainsaid (except by doubtful methods) that the Jerusalem Scribes and Pharisees as a whole were certainly, with their influence, partly responsible for His crucifixion, the more liberal seemingly bowing to the will of the majority, and that while it was probably an inner group of the Sanhedrin with their adherents who first condemned Him (14.53), the whole Sanhedrin (no doubt with a few notable absentees) finally passed sentence (15.1).

Galilee was separately governed, being ruled first by Herod Antipas up to 39 AD (along with Perea across the Jordan ), and then by King Agrippa I (up to 44 AD), as against the Roman procurators who ruled Judea. Yet Galilee was also the fiercest in its opposition to Rome, possibly because it was not held down by such an iron hand. A large amount of Rome’s problems stemmed from Galilee which spawned a number of famous rebels, including Judas of Galilee in 6 AD (Acts 5.37) who gained control of the weapons in the royal armoury and caused widespread trouble, but was defeated by Quirinius. Acts also mentions an early Theudas (Acts 5.36), but our knowledge of Jewish history about this time is limited. From this time on Galilee was a hotbed of trouble and was always on the verge of rising up. The others we actually know of, (mainly from Josephus), included another later Theudas (a fairly common name), an ‘Egyptian’, and a Samaritan prophet, and there were probably others who certainly caused trouble, but were after the time of Jesus. The roots, however, of their rebellious attitude must be seen as going back to earlier revolutionaries, of whom there would have been a constant stream, even if they were waiting quietly but impatiently for some opportunity to arise and someone to lead them. For Galilee had few Sadducees and no chief priests to maintain the status quo, even though they were probably ruled under Herod by a council of seventy, which would include Herodians, Pharisees and important lay people. It is not therefore surprising that a Galilean wonder-worker who gathered large crowds should be looked on with suspicion by the Romans and by the authorities when the crowds began to gather round Him. The Romans especially were always wary of mass movements. Nevertheless Pilate took no action against Him until it was forced on him by the Jewish authorities, for he clearly did not see Him as a threat, while also seeing Him as being in the main under Herod’s jurisdiction.

Into this world Jesus came, His ministry centred on the proclamation of the Kingly Rule of God (1.15). For while He healed large numbers of people (1.34) He never portrayed Himself as a healer except in so far as it supported His central message (Matthew 11.4-6), and sought to prevent healing taking over from His other activities (1.38). He did not want to be seen as a wonder-worker. It is true that He did emphasise more the casting out of evil spirits as evidence of Who He was and what He had come to do (1.39; Matthew 12.28), but He made a clear distinction between that and healing. What there can be no doubt about was that He portrayed Himself, and was portrayed by others, as One uniquely chosen by God (2.10, 17, 19-20, 28; 3.22-27; etc), and that Mark’s purpose was to highlight this fact and bring it home to his readers. But if we are to assess Him rightly it must be on the basis of what He taught, and His claim that as the suffering Servant He had come to die in order to give His life a ransom for many (10.45). This is especially brought out by the fact that the last part of Mark’s Gospel centres on that death. He was as unlike other ‘wonder-workers’ as it was possible to be, nor did He want to be seen as a wonder-worker. He wanted recognition that what He taught and what He had come to do was of God.

Excursus On Other Wonder-workers.

We include this excursus because in recent times Jesus has been compared by some with other Jewish religious healers and wonder-workers of the 1st century BC and AD, although the case has been greatly exaggerated. If there were such, and the information is scanty, His ministry was very different from theirs. For example:

  • They healed or did wonders indirectly through prayer, He healed and did wonders by laying on of hands or by command.
  • They cast out evil spirits using mysterious plants and incantations and the name of some great person from the past such as Solomon (or some even in Jesus’ Name - 9.38-39; Acts 19.13). Jesus did it in His own name by a word (He never laid hands on a demon-possessed person).
  • They regularly related disease to the work of evil spirits, whereas Jesus generally distinguished disease from spirit possession (Matthew 10.1).
  • Their ministry was limited. He set out to establish a movement which would carry on His work (8.34, compare Matthew 16.18).
  • They pointed to God and made no special claims for themselves. He revealed Himself as God’s chosen One, pointing to Himself and bringing out that He was on the divine side of reality, although at the same time aligning Himself closely with God the Father.

Thus Jesus stood head and shoulders above all His contemporaries, and even those who were remotely contemporaries.

The general background for such exorcists is described by Josephus. Speaking of traditions concerning Solomon he says, ‘and God granted him knowledge of the art used against demons for the benefit and healing of men. He also composed incantations by which illnesses are relieved and left behind forms of exorcisms with which those possessed by demons drive them out, never to return’ (see Antiquities 8.45-48). This tells us nothing about Solomon, but a great deal about the beliefs circulating in Palestine in 1st century AD.

Indeed mysterious roots, incantations and forms of exorcism, together with the name of Solomon, do appear to have been used against disease and evil spirits. That there were Jewish exorcists at work in 1st century AD it is true (see for example Mark 9.38; Luke 9.49; Acts 19.13-17 - in both cases using the name of Jesus) and Simon Magus is said to have ‘used sorcery and amazed the people of Samaria’ (Acts 8.9) although, it should be noted, himself amazed at the wonders done by the Apostles, but there is no account anywhere else of anyone who continually healed large numbers of people. The significance of these people has been highly exaggerated.

One rare example which has been cited as that of a wonder worker was Honi or Onias, later called ‘the circle drawer’, who operated in 1st century BC. Josephus, writing in 1st century AD, said of him, ‘Now there was one named Onias, a righteous man and beloved of God, who, in a certain drought, had once prayed to God to put an end to the intense heat, and God had heard his prayer and sent rain. Now seeing that this civil war would last a great while, he had hidden himself, but they took him to the Jewish camp and desired that just as by his prayers he had once put an end to the drought, so he might in like manner call curses down on Aristobulus and his supporters. And when, having refused and made excuses, he was nonetheless compelled by the mob to supplicate, he said, "O God, king of the whole world! Since those that stand now with me are your people, and those that are besieged are also your priests, I beseech you, that you will neither hear the prayers of those others against these men, nor to bring about what is asked by these men against those others." Whereupon the wicked Jews that stood about him, as soon as he had made this prayer, stoned him to death. But God punished them immediately for their barbarity, and took vengeance on them for the murder of Onias --- He did not delay their punishment, but sent a mighty and vehement storm of wind that destroyed the crops of the entire country, until a modius of wheat at that time cost eleven drachmae.’ (Josephus, Antiquities 14.22-24).

Josephus thus sees Onias (Honi) as having received one great answer to prayer, but he apparently tells us nothing about any other wonders, apart from what followed his death. And his interest in him is not the wonder itself, but in the fact that it led to his political embarrassment. He was then put to death for refusing to curse the enemies of his murderers, or to allow their enemies to curse them.

A hundred or so years later the Mishnah says of him, "Once they said to Honi the Circle-Drawer, 'Pray that rain may fall,' He said to them, 'Go out and bring in the Passover ovens (made of clay) that they may not be softened.' He prayed, but rain did not come down. What did he do? He drew a circle and stood within it and said before God, 'Lord of the universe, Your sons have turned their faces to me, for I am as a son of the house before You. I swear by Your great name that I will not move from here until You have mercy on Your sons.' Rain began dripping. He said, 'Not for this have I prayed, but for rain (that fills) cisterns, pits, and caverns.' It began to come down violently. He said, 'Not for this have I prayed, but for rain of goodwill, blessing, and plenty.' It came down in moderation until Israel went up from Jerusalem to the Mount of the House because of the rain. They came to him and said, ‘Just as you prayed for the rain to fall, so now pray that it might stop.’ He answered them, ‘Go and see if the Stone of Strayers has been washed away.’ Simon ben Shetach sent to him saying, ‘If you had not been Honi I would have pronounced a ban of excommunication against you. But what could I do since you are petulant before God and He performed your will as a son who importunes his father and he does his will.’ ” (m. Ta’anit 3:8).

Even if we were to take this account literally, and it bears all the signs of a tale told with embellishments, (and total lack of control of the wonder), it will be immediately apparent that even two hundred or so years after his death Honi was not portrayed as a continuing wonder-worker but as having received one great answer to prayer in respect of rain. And his God was revealed as somewhat endowed with a sense of humour, to put it in the nicest possible way. Furthermore it is clear from the final comment that Honi’s wonders did not always enhance his prestige. It was only hundreds of years later that this was embellished by the Rabbis into his being a wonder-worker, of which nothing was heard apart from the above in the three hundred years after his death. This view of him as a rain-bringer is in fact confirmed by the tradition that his grandsons were also approached in time of drought to pray for rain.

The later Babylonian Talmud says of Hana ha-Nehba who was the son of the daughter of Honi the Circle-Drawer. “When the world was in need of rain, the Rabbis would send him children and they would take hold of the hem of his garment and say to him, Father, Father [Abba, Abba], give us rain. Thereupon he would plead with the Holy One, Blessed be He, [thus], ‘Master of the Universe, do it for the sake of these who are unable to distinguish between the Father [Abba] who gives rain and the father [abba] who does not’.” (Babylonian Talmud, Taanith 23b).

A further story in the Babylonian Talmud demonstrates how Honi’s life became the grounds for fantasy. ‘One day Honi was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, how long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: seventy years. He then further asked him: are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found [grown] carob trees in the world; as my ancestors planted for me so I too plant for my children. Honi sat down to have a meal, and sleep overcame him. As he slept, a rocky formation enclosed upon him which hid him from sight, and he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree, and he asked him, are you the man who planted the tree? The man replied: I am his grandson. Thereupon he exclaimed: it is clear that I have slept for seventy years. He then caught sight of his donkey, who had given birth to several generations, and he returned home. He there inquired, ‘is the son of Honi the Circle-Drawer still alive?’ The people answered him, his son is no more, but his grandson is still living. Thereupon he said to them: ‘I am Honi the Circle-Drawer’, but no one would believe him. He then repaired to the Bet Hamidrash and there he overheard the scholars say, ‘the law is as clear to us as in the days of Honi the Circle-Drawer’, for whenever he came to the Bet Hamidrash he would settle for the scholars any difficulty they had. Whereupon he called out, ‘I am he’, but the scholars would not believe him nor did they give him the honour due to him. This hurt him greatly and he prayed [ for death] and he died. Rava said: “hence the saying either companionship or death”.’ (Babylonian Talmud Ta'anit 23a).

It should be noted that unlike the Gospels there is no serious attempt to portray in these stories historical facts. There is unquestionable embellishment and two differing accounts of Honi’s death are given. The stories are told so as to emphasise certain points and illustrate teaching rather than to be taken literally. This was typical of Rabbinic stories and parables, and the Rabbis themselves did not take them too seriously.

Another example cited is Hanina ben Dosa who came later than Jesus (mid first century AD) who was a Galilean Rabbi. M. Sotah 9:15, describes him as one of the “men of great deeds” (although the question as to whether this indicated wonders or simply a righteous man is strongly disputed and unanswerable); m. Berakhot 5:5 describes him as famous for his prayers resulting in healing; b. Berakhot 33a, describes how a poisonous reptile bit his heel and died, at which he said “See, my sons, it is not the poisonous reptile that kills, it is sin that kills” (cf. t. Berakhot 3.20, “Woe to the man bitten by a snake, but woe to the snake which has bitten Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa.”); b. Berakhot 34b tells how he prayed for the son of Gamaliel at a distance, and because his words came fluently he knew his prayers were answered — the boy was healed at that very hour (an echo of Jesus’ own previous activity); b. Pe’ah 112b, tells how he met the “ queen of the demons,” and banned her from passing through inhabited places; b. Ta’anit 24b, b. Yoma 53b, tell how he prayed and rain stopped; b. Ta’anit 25a, tells how he prayed and short beams lengthened in building a house; b. Ta’anit 24b, b. Berakhot, b. Hullin 86a, say “ Each day a heavenly voice came [from Mount Horeb] and said: ‘The whole universe is sustained on account of my son, Hanina’ ” (another echo of Jesus).

Again we have portrayed here (written at least over a hundred years after his death) a man who was highly respected, whose prayers were successful in bringing about cases of healing and of whom a few ‘wonder’ stories were told, but he is in total contrast to Jesus and some of the accretions may well have been the response of the Rabbis to the stories about Jesus which were spreading. It is noteworthy that one dignitary by whom he was said to be healed, said, so that he might not lose his dignity, ‘he (Hanina) is like a servant before the king, and I am like a prince before the king’. There was in all this no thought that Hanina was some great one, but that he was a man of God around whom stories grew centuries later. We need not doubt that truth lay behind some of the incidents but they appear to have been isolated ones and not have been given special significance other than as indicating that he was a godly man.

(We should possibly note that these sparse references, spread over two centuries, and only one set of which refer to a Galilean Rabbi, simply do not justify the picture of a merry band of charismatic healers running around Galilee in the days of Jesus which is favoured by some commentators. Thus 9.38 may well have been an exceptional case).

End of Excursus.

THE COMMENTARY.

As with the other Synoptic Gospels Mark is built on chiastic structures (i.e. following an abcba pattern) which divides it up into sections, with a pivotal point being found in Peter’s confession of Jesus as ‘the Christ’ (8.29) followed by the revelation of Him at the Transfiguration (9.2-8), from which point on emphasis is laid on His coming suffering, which will result in death and resurrection (8.31; 9.9, 12, 30-32; 10.33-34, 45).

SECTION 1. The Establishment of His Ministry (1.1-3.35).

This section commences with Jesus’ emergence from the wilderness as the Spirit anointed King and Servant (Isaiah 11.1-4; 42.1-4; 61.1-3) Who is God’s beloved Son (1.11), continues with His initial revelation of Himself as introducing the Kingly Rule of God (1.15), and as consequently doing mighty works in God’s Name, includes the idea of the formation of a group of disciples who are to extend His ministry (1.16-20; 2.13-14; 3.13-19), and finalises with the idea of the open community which is being formed who will do the will of God, and will thus reveal themselves as sharing with Him in His sonship as His ‘brother, sister and mother’ (3.31-35; compare Romans 8.15-17).

Analysis of 1.1-3.35.

  • a Jesus Christ comes, is borne witness to by John the Baptiser, and is acknowledged by God as His Son, with Whom He is well pleased (1.1-11).
  • b In the Spirit’s power He is driven into the wilderness to be tested by Satan, and is so tested among the wild beasts, while being assisted by heavenly resources (1.12-13),
  • c He goes about preaching the Kingly Rule of God and calls on four men to follow Him as His disciples, with the aim of their becoming ‘fishers of men’ (1.14-20).
  • d Crowds gather and wonder at Him, unclean spirits/demons are cast out, healings take place, and He warns the demons not to make Him known ‘because they knew Him’ (1.21-34).
  • e Jesus stresses that He must go to ‘the next towns’ in order to preach, for that is why He has been sent (1.35-39).
  • f Jesus heals a leper with a touch and a word and sends him as a testimony to the priests in Jerusalem (1.40--45).
  • g The healing of a paralytic - the Scribes criticise Jesus for declaring that the man’s sins are forgiven and learn that ‘the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins’ (2.1-12).
  • h The ‘surprising’ calling of Levi, a public servant and outcast, to be a disciple (2.13).
  • i Jesus and His disciples feast in Levi’s house along with many public servants and sinners, and the Pharisees grumble because He eats with sinners (2.14-16).
  • j Jesus makes clear that He has come as the Healer of those who acknowledge that they are ‘sick’, that is, not of those who claim to be righteous but of those who acknowledge themselves as sinners (2.17).
  • i The disciples of John and the Pharisees fast, and they grumble because Jesus’ disciples do not fast, at which Jesus points out that He has come as the Bridegroom introducing what is totally new and incompatible with the old so that fasting would be out of place (2.18-20).
  • h He illustrates the fact that the new ways have come to replace the old (2.21-22).
  • g The Pharisees criticise Jesus’ disciples for eating in the grainfields on the Sabbath and learn that ‘the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath’ (2.23-28).
  • f Jesus heals the man with a withered hand, as a testimony to the Pharisees (3.1-6).
  • e Jesus goes out among the crowds to preach and they gather to Him from every quarter (3.7-9).
  • d Jesus heals many people, unclean spirits are cast out declaring Him to be the Son of God and He charges them not to make Him known (3.10-12).
  • c Jesus calls the twelve Apostles who are to go out and preach and have authority to cast out demons (3.13-19a).
  • b Jesus in His coming is facing up to Satan and will prove to be the stronger, although being found among those who are His antagonists (are behaving like wild beasts), who, in contrast with the ‘sons of men’ who receive forgiveness, oppose the truth about Him, not recognising that the heavenly Holy Spirit is at work through Him (3.19b-30).
  • a Those who gather to Jesus and hear Him are members of His true family (and therefore sons of God who have responded to the Holy Spirit) as long as they do the will of God (3.31-35).

Note that in ‘a’ the Son of God is here and does the will of God (He is well pleased with Him), and in the parallel the new sons of God are here, evidenced by the fact that they do the will of God. In ‘b’ Jesus faces Satan in the wilderness among the wild beasts with heavenly support, and in the parallel He outfaces Satan among antagonistic unbelievers, with the Holy Spirit’s support. In ‘c’ He goes out proclaiming the Kingly Rule of God and calls four disciples to follow Him so that they might become fishers of men, and in the parallel He calls His twelve Apostles and sends them out to preach and have authority over demons. In ‘d’ crowds gather and unclean spirits/demons are cast out who ‘know Him’, and He commands them not to make Him known, and in the parallel crowds gather, demons are cast out who reveal that they know Him for they declare Him to be the Son of God, and He commands them not to make Him known. In ‘e’ He stresses the urgency to go to other towns in order to preach, and in the parallel the crowds gather from everywhere to hear Him preach. In ‘f’ the leper is healed as a testimony to the priests, and in the parallel the man with the withered hand is healed as a testimony to the Pharisees. In ‘g’’ the Son of Man, Who is criticised by the Scribes, has power on earth to forgive sins, and in the parallel the Son of Man, Whose disciples are criticised by the Pharisees, is Lord of the Sabbath. In ‘h’ the new is contrasted with the old as Jesus calls an outcast public servant to be His disciple, and in the parallel He reveals in parables that the new ways have replaced the old. In ‘i’ Jesus and His disciples feast with sinners, and the Pharisees grumble, while in the parallel the disciples of John and the Pharisees fast, and grumble because Jesus disciples do not fast. Jesus explains that they cannot fast because He has come as the Bridegroom in order to bring joy to men. In ‘j’ Jesus declares that He has come as a Physician with a new message of ‘healing’ for sinners.

The Beginning (1.1-13).

Mark commences his Gospel by referring to the new ‘Beginning’, and to the herald who introduced Jesus in accordance with Scripture. This herald was a successful preacher and prophet in his own right. He was named John the Baptiser, and stirred up the whole country to listen to his words. But his main importance, in accordance with his own words, was as the forerunner of the One Who was to come, and as the preparer of the way.

This stress on John as a forerunner emphasises that both John and Jesus Christ have come at God’s appointed time and in accordance with His purposes. This was in accordance with Jewish expectations of ‘the Messiah’, a powerful kingly figure descended from David (although there were many variations on the idea), who was due to come at the end of the age ‘in the last days’ in order to introduce the Kingly Rule of God. This Messiah, says Mark, has now come, heralded by John.

We should note the brevity of Mark’s early record. He is concerned at the commencement only to draw attention to the main facts which will illustrate the glory of Christ, namely:

  • The coming of the eagerly expected new Elijah (1.2).
  • The vivid testimony and fulfilment of Scripture (1.2-3).
  • The widespread movement that demonstrated that God was at work (1.4-5).
  • The promise of the coming of One Who will be ‘mightier than I’ Who will drench men in Holy Spirit (1.6-8).
  • The appearance of the Messiah Himself (1.9-10).
  • His anointing in accordance with the Scriptures and His validation by God through reception of the Spirit (1.11).
  • His final preparation before going forward to fulfil God’s purpose for Him (1.12-13).

Here we have the introductory theme, and all this within thirteen verses. But the fact that he felt no need to go into any detail suggests that he knew that that detail was generally well known to his readers.

Analysis of 1.1-13.

  • a The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God (1.1).
  • b Even as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, Behold, I send my messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make you ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ (1.2-3)
  • c John came, who baptised in the wilderness and preached the baptism of repentance unto remission of sins. And there went out to him all the country of Judaea, and all they of Jerusalem, and they were baptised of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather belt about his loins, and he ate locusts and wild honey (1.4-6).
  • d And he preached, saying, “There comes after me He Who is mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I baptised you with water, but He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit” (1.7-8).
  • c And it came about in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptised of John in the Jordan (1.9).
  • b And immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens rent in half, and the Spirit as a dove descending on Him, and a voice came out of the heavens (1.10-11a).
  • a “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well pleased”, and immediately the Spirit drives Him forth into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days tempted of Satan, and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to Him (1.11b-13).

Note how in ‘a’ He is declared to be the Son of God, and in the parallel God Himself declares that He is His beloved Son, while the beginning of the good news of Jesus the Anointed One is in parallel with His being driven by the Spirit Who anointed Him into the wilderness to face testing and wild beasts, and to experience the ministry of angels. This is the beginning. His earthly future as the Man anointed of God is already commencing, and is already being mapped out before Him as one of aloneness with God and testing by Satan, in the presence of ‘wild beasts’, although always with heavenly assistance. In ‘b’ John is as a voice from the wilderness calling on the people to prepare the way of the Lord, and in the parallel the Holy Spirit comes down on Jesus and a voice speaks to Him from Heaven as the One Who is Himself well prepared. In ‘c’ John comes, and the people come to him for baptism in the Jordan confessing their sins, and in the parallel Jesus comes, and He too is baptised by John in the Jordan (but noticeably not as confessing sins). In ‘d’ John proclaims the coming of the One Who is mightier than he Who will drench His people in the Holy Spirit, just as he drenches them in water.

The Preparation (1.1-8).

1.1 ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’

‘The beginning.’ These words have overtones of something especially important. Genesis 1 begins with the words, ‘in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’, and John begins his Gospel with the words ‘in the beginning was the Word,’ and in his first letter commences with ‘that which was from the beginning -- we declare to you’. In each of these cases ‘in the beginning’ takes us back into eternity. Mark may also therefore be seeking to turn our thoughts to the eternal One. But his words are also a stress on the fact that here there is a new beginning, a beginning specifically foretold and prepared for by God. God is now beginning the new work that He has promised through the ages. And the fact that it is ‘the beginning’ emphasises that there will be so much more to follow, for what he writes about is only ‘the beginning’. Only eternity will reveal its final outcome, although initially it will be tough going (verses 12-13).

Interestingly Peter also begins his summary of the life of Christ with a reference to a ‘beginning’ in Acts 10.37 where he says, ‘the word which was proclaimed throughout all Judaea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John preached, how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power --’. Perhaps Mark had a similar idea in mind and is here echoing Peter.

‘Of the good news of Jesus Christ.’ This beginning relates to Jesus Christ, and is ‘good news’. The latter term (‘good news’) was used of such things as the birth of a baby to the emperor, or of his coming of age, indicating an announcement of great importance. A greater than the emperor was here! But it was also used verbally in the Septuagint (the prominent Greek translation of the Old Testament - LXX) to describe the good news of deliverance which was to be declared by the great prophet who was anointed by God (Isaiah 61.1), and of the ‘good news’ that ‘God reigns’ as the Shepherd King (Isaiah 40.9-11; 52.7). Here then we are presented with that ‘good news’ as personified in the arrival of the Coming One Himself.

This ‘good news’ is a theme of Mark. It is the good news of the Kingly Rule of God in fulfilment of the Isaianic promises (1.14), it is the message which is to be wholeheartedly believed (1.15), men must be prepared to ‘lose their lives’, and their possessions, for the sake of it (8.35; 10.29), and it must be proclaimed among all nations (13.10; 14.9; 16.15). And its content is Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. In Him has come the Kingly Rule of God. Compare the similar connection of the Kingly Rule of God with the Lord Jesus Christ in Acts 28.23, 31.

The name ‘Jesus’ stresses that He was a man among men, for it was at the time a common Jewish name. But it also stresses that He was a man closely connected to God’s saving purposes, for the Hebrew equivalent, ‘Joshua’, means ‘YHWH is salvation’, and looks back to one who was called ‘the servant of YHWH’ (Joshua 24.29; Judges 2.8), who was also significantly the one who first sought to establish the kingly rule of God in Canaan (Joshua 24.2-14, 22, 26-27). It was specifically given to Jesus because ‘He will save His people from their sins’ (Matthew 1.21), and as an indication that He too has come to establish the Kingly Rule of God (1.15).

The name/title ‘Christ’ (Hebrew: Messiah; English: Anointed One ) emphasises His uniqueness. Here was no ordinary man. He was the great expected Messiah, the Anointed One, the One Who was waited for with bated breath by the Jews. Depending on different viewpoints they expected Him to come, either with powerful words or with powerful weapons, in order to free them from all bondage and subservience, and to introduce the coming Kingly Rule of God. Then God would be over all through His chosen Messiah, and all would be made well. Now Mark is saying, ‘this is the One of Whom I am about to tell you.’

We must, however, note the difference between his view and the popular Jewish view. To most Jews the Kingly Rule of God was seen as important because of the benefits that they would obtain through it. Apart from among the truly godly their hope was that they would become ‘top people’, and the nations would serve them, although of course they were fervently willing to share the honour with their God. But to Mark what was important was the King Himself, for to him, as to Jesus Himself, the Kingly Rule of God meant total submission to His Rule. It required one hundred percent commitment to Him. Those who would be involved must be active, not passive. It was only for those who wanted go become truly godly.

But he will also later stress (as Jesus did Himself) that this Jesus Christ is to be a suffering Messiah (8.29-31; 10.45), and one third of his Gospel will be connected with the last days of Jesus, demonstrating how important what happened then was seen to be. He saw this as an essential and important part of the ‘Gospel’ he proclaimed, and this ties in with his emphasis on the fact that Jesus Himself stressed His coming sufferings (8.30-31; 9.12, 31), and indeed on the fact that He had come to give His life as ‘a ransom for many’ (10.45) through His ‘blood of the covenant’ poured out for many (14.24). The saving death and resurrection of Jesus was central to Mark’s message. Thus he stresses that the Coming One, the great Messiah, the Son of God, had come, in order to suffer and to give His life as a ransom for many (10.45).

‘The Son of God.’ The inclusion of this phrase here has been questioned as it is omitted in one important manuscript (Theta), and half omitted in another (Aleph - it was, however, immediately corrected), and some consider that it is difficult to see how such an important statement could have been dropped out, unless by accident in a very early manuscript. Accidental omission is a real possibility due to the number of -ou endings in this verse. But it may in fact have been deliberately dropped out by an unwise copyist in order to lay greater emphasis on ‘Jesus Christ’ at a time when His Name was seen as so exalted that the explanation was no longer felt to be necessary. ‘The Son of God’ is certainly included in the majority of important manuscripts and is one of Mark’s main themes, and if introduced later must be seen as a justifiable editorial comment. We ought, however, probably to see it as indicating the original text, and this is supported by the parallel in the chiasmus. (If introduced later it must certainly have been so very early on in order for it to be in the majority of ancient manuscripts, so that we may postulate that it was possibly even then by Mark himself. Thus we could well see it as an integral part of, if not the first, then a ‘second edition’ of the Gospel and therefore of the text).

Jesus as ‘the Son of God’ in the mouths of others is undoubtedly a theme of Mark. He was testified to as the Son of God by the voice from Heaven at His baptism, ‘you are My beloved Son’ (1.11), and at His transfiguration, ‘this is My beloved Son’ (9.7). The title was wrenched as a title from evil supernatural spirits by the very power of His presence (3.11; 5.7). It was spoken of by Jesus Himself as the well-beloved son of the parable (12.6) and as ‘the (unique) Son’ (13.32). It was indirectly acknowledged by the high priest, an idea to which Jesus gave His assent (14.61). And finally it was stated by the Roman centurion at the cross (15.39). Thus the voices of Heaven and Hell, of the Messiah Himself and of the representatives of Jerusalem and Rome, are all seen as bearing testimony to Him as uniquely the Son of God. And to the Gentiles to whom Mark wrote that did not just mean the Messiah, it meant that He was divine. (It is indeed questionable how far ‘son of God’ ever was seen as a specific Messianic title on any widespread scale, although there is evidence for it at Qumran. But to Mark it would be seen as going further than that).

But He would mainly reveal Himself to men as the redeeming (10.45), suffering (8.31; 9.12, 31; 10.33-34) Son of Man, Who had the power on earth to forgive sins (2.10), was Lord of the Sabbath (2.28), would give Himself a ransom for many (10.45) and who would rise again from the dead (9.9, 31; 10.33-34) and appear before His Father in glory to receive kingly power as described in the Book of Daniel (14.62 compare Daniel 7.13-14), finally coming back to earth in His power and great glory surrounded by angels (8.38; 13.26). That, however, is a later revelation in Mark, once He has first been revealed in His great authority and glory.

1.2-3 ‘Even as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make you ready the way of the Lord, make His paths straight’.” ’

The ‘even’ connects back to ‘the beginning’. He is saying ‘This is it! This is what was promised by the prophets. This is the beginning of the new action, even as it was promised by God and it is therefore central in His purposes.

‘As it is written.’ The phrase stresses that the words were from God Himself. ‘It is written’ (perfect tense - ‘it has been and now is’) establishes it as God’s truth and means ‘written with God’s authority, and by God through His messengers’. The use of the passive tense to avoid using the sacred name of God was common practise among some Jews. Rather than say ‘God wrote’ they would say, ‘it is written’.

The first part of the citation actually comes from Malachi 3.1, with part of Exodus 23.20 (word for word from LXX) in mind. In Malachi 3.1 the original reads ‘Behold I send My messenger to prepare the way before Me’, that is, in order to prepare for God’s final activity on behalf of His people. But this is connected by Mark with the passage referring to ‘the Angel of YHWH’ (Exodus 23.20) and then joined by him to the following citation, which is from Isaiah, to give it extra force. The fact that it is Isaiah who is mentioned as the prime author demonstrates that it is ‘the voice crying in the wilderness’, (which comes from Isaiah 40.3), that is to be seen as central. But the ideas from Exodus and Malachi amplify it.

But again in the original of Isaiah 40.3 we learn that the way is to be prepared, and the paths were to be made straight, for God. It stressed that ‘God is on His way’. So the fulfilling of God’s coming to act on behalf of His people is being described in terms of Jesus Christ, His Son. Mark wants us now to know that God is coming in the coming One, the One expected and prepared for by John, and the changes he makes reflect this application. To Mark ‘the Lord’ is Jesus Christ.

‘In Isaiah the prophet.’ The mention of Isaiah demonstrates that it is the second, Isaianic, part of the promise that is the main concentration, that being thus mainly in mind, for that is what the coming messenger will proclaim. The first part is introductory and explanatory (so much so that both Matthew and Luke drop it out as unnecessary). The joining of two or more Scriptures in one quotation or reference in such a way is authorised by the voice from heaven in verse 11 which does the same. All was Scripture and therefore all could be combined together. This attitude is general in the New Testament. Compare Revelation 15.3-4 where various Scriptures are combined. Note also the use made of Scripture in Galatians 4.21 onwards, especially verse 30 where the words of Sarah are quoted as the voice of God, and in Matthew in 27.9-10 where ideas from Zechariah and Jeremiah are combined, and see Paul’s use in Romans 3.10-18. To the New Testament writers all Scripture could be seen as one word from God.

‘Behold I send My messenger -.’ In Exodus 23.20 the messenger is the angel of YHWH, but in Malachi 3.1 the coming messenger is thought of in terms of Elijah (Malachi 4.5), who will come before ‘the great and terrible day of the Lord.’ He is to prepare the way for God to act. The coming of this new, greater Elijah (compare how the coming of the new David is similarly promised elsewhere and refers, not to a returned David, but to a greater David) was one event eagerly anticipated by the Jews in 1st century AD, an event which would fully restore prophecy and bring them hope. For many saw the voice of prophecy as having been silent, or at least wavering, from the time of Malachi (see the Jewish history 1 Maccabees 4.46; 9.27; 14.41 for this idea), and longed once again to hear a firm strong voice. And they saw Elijah as the exemplar of the prophets. They were thus in constant anticipation of his coming and looked for him in any great prophetic figure who arose (6.15; John 1.21; Luke 9.19; Matthew 16.14). Even today at the Passover the Jews leave an empty seat for Elijah in anticipation of his coming. For them he has still not come, for when he came they passed him by, as they did Jesus Himself.

But Mark clearly depicts John the Baptiser as Elijah. He comes in the wilderness (compare 1 Kings 19.4, 8-9, 15) and wears camel’s hair with a wide leather belt around his loins and eats locusts and wild honey. We can compare with this how in 2 Kings 1.8 Elijah ‘was a man wearing hair and with a leather belt about his loins’ (compare also Zechariah 13.4 for the ‘hairy cloak’ of the prophet). ‘Locusts (or locust beans) and wild honey’ were wilderness food. This identification is confirmed by the angel in Luke 1.15-17, and later by Jesus Himself (9.12-13; Matthew 10.14; 16.10-13).

‘The great and terrible day of the Lord.’ While the coming of God’s day would be good news for the faithful, for the remainder it would be a great and terrible day. Thus the coming of Jesus, and especially the treatment that He received, while good news to the believing, also warned of a great and terrible day for the unbelieving. And so it proved. Their treatment of Him would lead to the destruction of Jerusalem, and to great suffering for the Jews and their further scattering (Luke 21.24). Furthermore those who refused to come to Him would cease to be His people thus losing all that they in the end lived for (Matthew 21.43; John 15.1-6). The coming of John was intended to avert this, but it could only do so for those who responded and believed.

And the fact is that from that day the Jews have truly suffered ‘great tribulation’ as they await the final judgment (13.19; Matthew 24.21; Luke 21.22-24 - note that ‘these are the days of vengeance’ clearly referred to the period on and after 70 AD), just as Jesus declared they would. But we must not forget that many in Israel did come to Him, so that the new Israel of His people was founded on the old, and there are also indications that in the last days He will continue to restore many of old Israel to Himself. It is the Israel who are within Israel who will be called (Romans 9.6-7).

But all this was to finally lead on to the end of the ages. So His coming was to be seen as both a glorious day and a terrible one, as both saving and judging at the same time (compare John 3.17-21) and as climaxing God’s purposes. In Jesus the ‘last days’ have begun, and will eventually result in the final consummation.

‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness.’ Note that John is ‘the voice’, whereas Jesus is the Word itself (John 1.1-14). John is the shadow, Jesus is the substance.

‘In the wilderness.’ It was in the wilderness that Moses first heard the voice of God (Exodus 3.1-6), and where the great covenant with Israel was established and the ten commandments were given (Exodus 20), and it was to the wilderness that Elijah was driven (1 Kings 17.3-7), and in which he heard the still small voice (1 Kings 19.3-12) and from where he came to denounce Ahab and Jezebel. The wilderness is ever represented as a place where God may be met with, for it is a place unmarred by man’s activity. That is why Jesus Himself will go into the wilderness in order to meet with God (verses 11-12) and why it will be in the wilderness that He will miraculously feed His people (8.4) as the ancient people had been so fed long before (Deuteronomy 8.3). It is not through worldly authorities that God will advance His purposes. It is as men come alone with Him.

There is a specific emphasis on ‘the wilderness’ in these first few verses of Mark (see verses 2, 4, 12, 13) so that Jesus can be seen as emerging from the wilderness in order to proclaim the Good News (verses 14-15), just as Moses was seen as emerging from the wilderness in order to bring deliverance to God’s people in Exodus. Here is the beginning of a new Exodus (compare Matthew 2.15 along with Hosea 11.1-9), which is intended to result in the establishment of the Kingly Rule of God.

But one thing further needs to be said about this ‘voice’. It is a voice from the wilderness, from man going alone with God, crying out for men to respond to God so that God’s will might be accomplished. But this time there will also be a voice from Heaven declaring that the One has come Who will fulfil that will (verse 11). The world is soon to be faced up with the fact that ‘God reigns’ (Isaiah 52.7).

‘Make ready the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.’ When a great king was to travel in state, preparations would be made to ease the way before him. The roads would be levelled and straightened, and the potholes would be filled in. Thus was the coming messenger of the Lord to ease the way for the Messiah, by preparing the hearts of the people in readiness for His coming (Luke 1.16-17).

‘The way of the Lord.’ In the original passage ‘the Lord’ refers to God, but it is probable that here Mark sees it as referring to Jesus Himself, as being the only Son of God.

1.4 ‘John came, who baptised in the wilderness and preached the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.’

Here was the Elijah who was to come (9.13; Matthew 11.10-14; 17.12; Luke 1.17). The name John, given directly by God (Luke 1.13), meant ‘God is gracious’. In him God was about to reveal His graciousness to man. So John came preaching a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ and baptised men in ‘much water’ (John 3.23). As Matthew 3 and Luke 3.1-22 both confirm (compare verse 8) this drenching with water spoke of the coming of the Holy Spirit like rain from Heaven to bring fruitfulness among His chosen (Isaiah 32.15; 44.1-5), resulting in true repentance of heart and a total change of life (Isaiah 1.16-17).

The angel, prior to John’s birth, had stated that ‘many of the children of Israel will he turn to the Lord their God, and he will go before His face in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to walk in the wisdom of the righteous’ (Luke 1.16-17). Thus as the new Elijah he proclaimed this message, the need for ‘repentance’. The word means a change of mind and heart, and a turning to God, which would lead to the forgiveness of sins. It is used in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) to indicate regret for sin and turning away from evil (e.g. Jeremiah 8.6; 18.8), and as well as to God in mercy ‘changing His mind’ (taking up a new stance) about His dealings with men (1 Samuel 15.29; Amos 7.3, 6).

‘Who baptised in the wilderness and preached the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.’ What is certain above all is that John’s ministry centred on repentance and open admission of sin, resulting in forgiveness, and on subsequent baptism. This is constantly stressed (Matthew 3.2, 6, 8, 11; Luke 3.8), and Luke details the kind of changes required (3.10-14). The stress on ‘in the wilderness’ may also indicate that Mark saw Israel at that time as being precisely that, a people whose hearts were barren and unfruitful. But the question is, what did his baptism signify? Certainly by being baptised the people indicated their repentance and looked for the forgiveness of their sins, but what did the baptism itself mean? To answer that question we have only to look at his ministry. It centres on the ideas of fruitfulness and harvest, and in the light of these references water could only point to the rain that came from the heavens and the resultant springs of water flooding up from the ground (Isaiah 44.1-5).

Matthew 3 and Luke 3 both speak of the Pharisees as like vipers fleeing from cornfields, of the need to produce good fruit (the result of plenteous rain), of the axe laid to the root of trees (because they had withered), of the fruitless tree cast into the fire, of the One who has the threshing instrument in His hand, of the separating of wheat from chaff, the one stored in barns the other burned up. Thus John’s vivid imagery is mainly drawn from agriculture. We also know that John contrasts his own drenching with water with that of Him Who will ‘drench in Holy Spirit and fire’, and significantly in the Old Testament the pouring out of the Spirit is described as being like the rain from heaven (Isaiah 32.15; 44.1-5). The first part of the phrase ‘drench in Holy Spirit and fire’ must surely therefore be connected, in context, with the gathering into the barn of the grain which the rain has caused to grow, and the second part with the burning of the useless chaff in the fires of judgment, the one being blessed and having purpose for the future, and the other being judged unfit and only suited to destruction.

In the light of this, and of the constant references in the prophets, where the coming of the Holy Spirit is likened to the pouring down of the rain with its resulting fruitfulness, it is clear that John’s baptism has in mind, and pictures, the drenching, life-giving rain from heaven (baptizein means ‘to drench’). Thus Isaiah 32.15 says ‘-- until the Spirit be poured out from on high, and the wilderness become a fruitful field, and the fruitful field be counted for a forest, justice shall dwell in the wilderness and righteousness shall abide in the fruitful field’. Here we have, as with John’s message, the wilderness bearing fruit, with the pouring out of the Spirit as rain resulting in the fruitful fields and trees.

This is then applied specifically to people in Isaiah 44.3-4, ‘for I will pour water on him who is thirsty, and streams on the dry ground, and I will pour My Spirit upon your seed, and my blessing upon your offspring, and they shall spring up among the grass, as willows by the watercourses.’ Compare also Isaiah 55.10-13 where the rain and snow from heaven, watering the earth and making it fruitful, ‘bringing to birth’ the grain, are likened to the going forth of the word of God to accomplish His purposes, spoken of in terms of flourishing trees of the right kind; and 45.8 where the heavens drop down ‘from above’ (LXX ’anothen - as in John 3.3) and the skies pour down righteousness so that the earth is fruitful in salvation and righteousness is caused to spring up. ‘Birth from above’ (compare John 3.3) is specifically in mind in these verses.

Reference to the Spirit in terms of water from heaven is also found in Ezekiel 36.25-27 where it cleanses by giving a new heart. But Ezekiel thinks in priestly terms and the sprinkling of water there rather has reference to the water (‘clean’ water) which has been treated with the ashes of the heifer (Numbers 19.17-19), but even there Ezekiel links it with fruitfulness and restoration (Ezekiel 36.29-30, 33-36), while Joel also links the pouring out of the Spirit (Joel 2.28-30) with the times of refreshing, the coming of the rain and the floors full of wheat (2.19, 22-25), as well as with the spiritual inspiration of men and women chosen by God.

So by his baptism John was indicating by an acted out parable that these baptised people were being separated to God in preparation for the coming of Holy Spirit as promised by the prophets in order that they might become acceptable to God (be ‘cleansed’), be restored, and might become fruitful. He was acting out their future blessing. They were in the future to enjoy the ‘drenching in Holy Spirit’ from the Messiah, the life-giving spiritual rain which would produce fruitfulness in their hearts. Notice the phrase ‘he baptised in the wilderness’. It was in the wilderness that the waters would come and would make the desert blossom as a rose resulting in ‘waters -- in the wilderness, and streams in the desert’ (Isaiah 35.1, 6). That his baptism was a prophetic acting out, and not actual in terms of the new beginning, is stressed in Acts 19.1-6 where the disciples of John are seen as being devoid of the new Spirit. And yet the Spirit Who was proclaimed by John, was undoubtedly to some extent experienced under him (Luke 1.15-17; Matthew 21.31-32). It was, however, to be Jesus Who ultimately drenched men with the Spirit and brought to fulfilment what the prophets had promised (verse 8).

1.5 ‘And there went out to him all the country of Judaea, and all those of Jerusalem, and they were baptised of him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.’

‘There went out to him --.’ The verb indicates a continuing process, there was a continual stream of seekers.

‘All the country of Judaea and all those of Jerusalem.’ The inhabitants of Jerusalem always distinguished themselves from the inhabitants of the surrounding area (compare Isaiah 1.1; 2.1; etc). In the Old Testament they were constantly spoken of separately. This was because originally Jerusalem was an independent city which was David’s by conquest, using only his own followers to capture it, and it was only then that it was combined with Judah and Israel to form a united kingdom. It thus always saw itself as distinctive, as ‘David’s city’ (2 Samuel 5.7, 9 and often).

‘All the country -- all those of --.’ This is a generalisation and means a great proportion of them so that it could almost be seen as all. There was a huge revival movement. This is confirmed by Josephus, the Jewish historian, when he says ‘many flocked to him, for they were greatly moved by hearing his words, ---’ which he then connects with John’s death at the hands of Herod.

‘And were baptised of him in the River Jordan confessing their sins.’ By their baptism they were indicating repentance and turning to God in preparation for the coming age and openly owning up to their sins. This was no formal ritual of confession but the reflection of a people truly broken down because of their sense of guilt and shame, and unable to hold back. They were people of a broken and contrite spirit (Psalm 34.18; 51.17; Isaiah 57.15) seeking the fruitfulness of life which would result from the Spirit’s outpouring. So he baptised them signifying that they were now seen as ‘worthy’ as a result of their repentance to be recipients of that coming, end of the age, outpouring of Holy Spirit promised by the prophets. Yet the fact of this movement, with the people flocking to hear, and responding to, John’s preaching, did demonstrate that the Holy Spirit was already now at work in some measure (see above), and would especially be so in the ministry of Jesus (Luke 4.1; 11.13; Matthew 12.28), which was why Jesus could chide Nicodemus for not being aware of the significance of being born of the Spirit (John 3.10). The promise was, however, that even better was to come (John 7.38-39; Acts 1.8).

1.6 ‘And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather belt about his loins, and did eat locusts and wild honey.’

John comes in the wilderness (compare 1 Kings 19.4, 8-9, 15) and wears camel’s hair with a wide leather belt around his waist and loins and eats locusts and wild honey. The hairy garment and leather belt indicated that John was a prophet similar to Elijah. Compare with this how in 2 Kings 1.8 Elijah ‘was a man wearing hair and with a leather belt about his loins’; and see also Zechariah 13.4 for mention of the ‘hairy cloak’ of the prophet. Locusts (see Leviticus 11.22) and wild honey were typical wilderness food. John was a man of the wilderness.

The members of the Qumran community had also fled into the wilderness as they separated themselves from an Israel that they saw as tainted and condemned, and John may well have had contact with them. But his message was essentially his own, and different from theirs, and there is no real reason, apart from the fact that both were in the wilderness, for connecting him with them. Nor did he seek to form his own separated community. He sent men and women back to live in society and to live out his teachings there.

1.7 ‘And he preached, saying, “There comes after me he who is mightier than I, the fastening of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose”.’

The unfastening of sandals was work regularly a task performed by servants and foreign slaves. Those who entered a house were relieved of the dust or mud of the streets by servants, who would take off their sandals, and regularly also wash their feet. In Palestine a Hebrew slave was exonerated from this humiliating task, and Rabbi Joshua b. Levi is quoted as saying, ‘All services which a slave does for his master a pupil should do for his teacher, with the exception of undoing his shoes.’ So by his words John declares that compared with the Coming One he is lower than the lowest servant or even a Gentile slave. He is as nothing before Him, not even fit to perform that lowliest and most despised of tasks, the unfastening of His shoes.

‘He Who is mightier than I.’ The word indicates strength and power. In the original prophecy the way was being prepared for YHWH, Who would pour out His Spirit on His people (Isaiah 44.1-5), although the activity of the hoped for Davidic King (Isaiah 9.6-7; 11.1-4; 55.3) may also have been in mind. But here the mightier One is clearly Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is as ‘the mighty one’, the ‘mightier than he’, that Jesus overcomes Satan and his minions (3.27 compare Luke 11.22). And it is with mighty power that He proclaims His message and heals the sick (Luke 4.14, 32). It is a power that He is able to pass on to others on His own authority (Mark 3.15; Luke 9.1). But it may be that here John mainly has in mind the contrast between the baptism which he can himself administer, which is but a picture of what is to come, as compared with that which Jesus will administer, which will be the supreme ‘baptism’, the ‘drenching in Holy Spirit’, that which is the prerogative of God.

1.8 “I baptised (drenched) you in water but he will baptise (drench) you in Holy Spirit.”

For this One Who is coming will be the means by which God will fulfil His promise of drenching men with the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 32.15; 44.1-5). He will Himself be acting as the dispenser of the Holy Spirit, Who proceeds from the Father (John 15.26), a clear indication once it is thought through of His own deity.

This confirms that John’s baptism in water was to be seen as a prophetic acting out of what was to happen, for the two are here spoken of in parallel. John could only symbolise the pouring out of the Spirit by a drenching in water, but the coming One would bring the reality by Himself sending, and drenching men and women in, the Holy Spirit (John 15.26). This demonstrates His true mightiness. He will bring to fruition the prophetic end of the age promises, the Messianic age, saturating God’s people in Holy Spirit Who is at His disposal. The time of fulfilment is now at hand.

The Coming of Jesus - The Descent of the Spirit on Him As The Sealing and Empowering of the King (1.9-11).

The preparations completed Jesus now comes to John to be baptised, in exactly the same way as the people had, and having been baptised the Holy Spirit comes on Him as the One Who is introducing the age of the Spirit. And at this point a voice from heaven says, ‘You are my beloved Son (Psalm 2.7), in you I am well pleased’ (Isaiah 42.1). By this He is declared to be both God’s Son and God’s Servant. (Or alternately, ‘You are My Son, the Beloved in Whom I am well pleased’ - compare Matthew 12.18).

Psalm 2 initially announces the acceptance of David’s heirs as God’s adopted sons (verse 7, compare 2 Samuel 7.14), but it also has especially in mind the great king who is coming, His anointed one (verse 2) who will establish his rule over the nations (verses 8-9). Isaiah 42.1-4, along with Isaiah 49.1-6; 50.4-8 and 52.13-53.12, has in mind the great Servant of the Lord who will bring about God’s purposes through suffering.

1.9 ‘And it happened that in those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptised of John in the Jordan.’

The fact of Jesus coming to John to be baptised is plainly stated and it is deliberately in parallel with what had happened to the people (verse 5). He is being identified with them in His baptism. But Mark then moves immediately on. Not, however, before drawing attention to the fact that Jesus came from Nazareth, a small and insignificant place in the Galilean hills. His background is unassuming. He is not only a despised Galilean (see John 7.41, 52), but from an insignificant village, a ‘root out of dry ground’ (Isaiah 53.2). This was the last place from which any good thong could be expected (John 1.46). But what a difference was about to take place. He comes to the Jordan. The River Jordan was the place of entry into the Promised Land, and Jesus was as it were here being prepared for His entry into it to establish the Kingly Rule of God. Here was the greater Joshua, come to establish God’s Kingly Rule. (Mark is eager to get to the essence of his account, but he recognises that the foundation must be firmly laid).

Verse 5 has informed us that at this stage the main interest in John has been by the Judeaeans and Jerusalemites. Thus the appearance of Jesus as a Galilean indicates a deliberate identification of Himself by Jesus with the work of John. He has come a good way for this sole purpose, to confirm His support for John in his ministry, and to indicate that John and His own future work are all part of God’s plan and purpose. And by it He is being identified with all the people who are responding to John’s ministry. He is not shy of being seen as a part of this movement of God.

Mark does not question the incongruity of Jesus being baptised. Indeed he deliberately stresses that Jesus is being baptised in exactly the same way as the people (apart, that is, from the confession of sin). The question of incongruity is raised in Matthew where John says to Jesus, ‘I have need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’ (Matthew 3.14). But that incongruity is partly dependent on interpretation. If John’s baptism is a symbol of the washing away of sin (for which there is no direct evidence in the context, and little if any evidence elsewhere in the Gospels and epistles) then there is indeed a problem, although we could argue that He was but identifying Himself with the sinners He had come to save. But if, as we have affirmed, it is a symbol of the coming of Holy Spirit like life-giving rain, a symbol of being part of God’s new people enjoying the blessing of the Spirit, the problem is far less, if it arises at all. For there is no reason to question why the Holy Spirit should not come powerfully on Him. Indeed it was to be expected, and was indeed what was about to happen.

The incongruity to John was twofold. Firstly because he felt he was not worthy to perform the baptism on One whom he knew to be so greatly superior to himself, (and remember he was Jesus’ cousin and knew Him well), and secondly because he recognised that he himself needed the supreme baptism of the One Who could baptise in Holy Spirit. How then could he baptise the baptiser in Holy Spirit? How could the shadow baptise the reality?

But Jesus clearly did not consider it incongruous. It is true that there was no need of repentance, admission of sin and forgiveness in His case, but those were activities preparing people for baptism, making the person ready for acceptance by God in the final act. Without them the people could not be baptised. But they were not what the baptism symbolised, for they preceded it, (even though they were, of course, also evidenced by it). Baptism, however, took place because, once repentance, admission of sinfulness, and forgiveness had occurred, it was a seal that these baptised people were now declaring themselves to be forgiven sinners, made ready to receive the pouring out of the Spirit when the time came. So while Jesus did not need to repent and receive forgiveness of sins, He did firstly desire to join with all the people in indicating His acceptance of the God-given authority of John and secondly in His readiness to receive God’s Spirit, in His case on their behalf as the One Who would baptise in Holy Spirit. ‘So it becomes us to fulfil all that is right’, He declared (Matthew 3.15). As representative Man He must do what any righteous man should do, participate in that which points ahead to the work of the Spirit.

So by His act Jesus is clearly identifying Himself with the people to whom He has come, acknowledging John’s position as a man sent from God, and confirming the validity of his baptism and the fact that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was coming.

1.10 ‘And coming up out of the water straight away he saw the heavens cleaving in half and the Spirit as a dove descending on him, and a voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased”.’

Here we have brought home to us Jesus’ self-awareness at His baptism. As He ‘comes up out of the water’, (either by rising from its depths or by walking towards the bank, depending on how John baptised), He is aware of activity in heaven. The idea of the heavens being opened (anoigo) as indicating heavenly activity was a regular one, but not in the vivid way in which Mark renders it (skizo). Perhaps he intends us to link it with the rending of the curtain in the Temple in 15.38, another dramatic moment of divine revelation. Or it may be that Mark has in mind Isaiah 64.1 (in the Hebrew), ‘O that You would rend the heavens and come down’. For Isaiah 63-64 has a number of connections with the passage here. In Isaiah 63.11 the leaders of Israel came up out of the water (the sea) when God put in the midst of them His holy Spirit, and Israel were then led through the wilderness (Isaiah 63.13-14), only to fail in the end in their response to God’s Kingly Rule (Isaiah 63.19). So Mark may well have intended us to see that God was now rending the heavens as Isaiah had pleaded in expectation of a better result.

‘The heavens cleaving in half.’ This does not refer to a physical gap appearing but simply indicates that there was some unusual and dramatic activity in the heavens, resulting in this case in the fact that something other worldly was seen there.

‘And the Spirit as a dove descending on him.’ He was conscious of what seemed like some kind of physical presence (Luke specifically confirms this when he speaks of ‘a bodily form like a dove’ - 3.22), which reminded Him of a dove and descended on Him, in the same way as the Spirit would descend on the coming King (Isaiah 11.1-4), the coming Servant (Isaiah 42.1-4, compare Matthew 12.17-21) and the coming anointed Prophet (Isaiah 61.1-3). In John’s Gospel we learn that John the Baptiser was also aware of these things (John 1.32). What the crowds were aware of we are not told. The words, ‘This is my beloved Son’ in Matthew might suggest that the crowds also heard the voice, but again it may have been seen as spoken only to John the Baptiser. All would have taken place in Aramaic so that both representations are reasonable translations into Greek. To Jesus, ‘You are My beloved son’, to John ‘this is My beloved son’. (The Aramaic may well have been simply ‘My Beloved Son’. The pronoun, as it so often was, would have to be understood).

So in His baptism Jesus identified Himself with the repentant people and received God’s mighty empowering (compare Luke’s ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ - 4.1) and seal of approval, while John received confirmation that this was indeed the One Who had a unique relationship with God and will drench men in Holy Spirit (John 1.33) like refreshing rain (Isaiah 32.15; 55.10).

‘As a dove.’ Not literally but in impression. It reminded those who saw it of a dove. It is possible that the picture was intended to connect with the Holy Spirit hovering like a bird over the coming creation (Genesis 1.2), the symbol of a coming creative work of God, this being linked in Mark’s mind with the dove who brought back the symbol of the olive leaf to the ark in the time of Noah, which demonstrated that God was in mercy allowing man to begin anew in a new creation (Genesis 8.11-12). It was a symbol of mercy and hope and new life. It may even connect with the fact that in the Song of Solomon the dove is a description of ‘the beloved’ (2.14; 5.2; 6.9). And we may well connect it with Jesus words about the ‘harmlessness of doves’ (Matthew 10.16), the point being that He had not come as a warrior Messiah (see also Matthew 21.5). But it is a mistake in saying this to suggest that it differentiated Him and His preaching from that of John in that John was somehow more judgmental and fierce. Jesus’ words could be even more fierce than John’s and John’s fierceness is often overemphasised. As with Jesus he was ‘fierce’ with those who deserved it, while his heart was compassionate towards the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

‘And a voice came from the heavens.’ The Rabbis spoke of a ‘bath kol’, (daughter of a voice), a distant voice that filtered through from God as He spoke in the heaven of heavens, but was inferior to the direct word of God to the prophets, but this was no bath kol, this was God speaking directly and firmly, authenticating Jesus’ mission. The heavens had been opened. He was fully involved in what was happening.

‘You are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased.’ This echoes Psalm 2.7, a Psalm originally reflecting the adoption of the Davidic king by God, and Isaiah 42.1, words spoken to God’s coming Servant to the nations. By it God confirms that Jesus is the true Son of David, the expected Messiah, and God’s faithful Servant. Note that the empowering of the Spirit was promised both to the coming king (Isaiah 11.2) and on the coming Servant (Isaiah 42.1) and anointed Prophet (Isaiah 61.1), and it was part of the Messianic expectation among the Jews. But the words go deeper than that for they reveal Jesus as God’s own beloved Son in a way never suggested of the Davidic kings.

In Psalm 2 the original reference was to the king of Judah as adopted by God, probably at his coronation and possibly in a yearly renewal ceremony. It expressed the confidence that the Davidic kingship, chosen and adopted by God, would one day rule the world as His chosen king. Psalm 2.7 is literally, ‘you are my son, today have I begotten (i.e. adopted, made my son) you’. However the change to ‘beloved’ reflects the fact that Jesus was not adopted like the others but was unique. It practically reflects the same idea as the ‘only begotten’ - it is used in LXX to indicate Abraham’s ‘only son’ and Jephthah’s ‘only daughter’ - but was especially suitable as distinguishing Jesus from the earlier Davidic kings, as the One Whom God essentially and uniquely loved, His only beloved Son (compare 9.7; 12.6).

The quotation from Isaiah 42.1 links Jesus with the Servant of Isaiah. We should especially consider here Matthew’s quotation from Isaiah 42.1 which also contains reference to him as ‘beloved’. Initially referring to Israel, and then to the faithful in Israel (49.3) who would restore ‘Jacob’ and ‘Israel’ (the peoples of Judah and Israel), and bring the nations to God, the Servant narrowed down to a unique prophetic figure who would suffer at the hands of His enemies who refused to hear him (chapter 50.3-8), and who would be offered up for the sins of God’s people (chapter 52.13-53.12). While not directly linked with the Davidic kings he had royal qualities (52.13), and Jesus later linked Himself with this suffering Servant (Luke 22.37) as well as claiming to be the Messiah (explicitly in John 4.25-26 in a place where the title was not misleading to the hearers), the Son of David, and the suffering Son of Man.

So Jesus became aware that the moment when He must reveal Himself as Son and Messiah and Servant of God had arrived. His mission of service, and suffering, and royal authority must now begin. And this inevitably resulted in His going apart into a quiet place to consider all the implications involved. How human this revealed Him to be, yet how divine.

‘And straightway.’ This is the first occurrence in Mark of a constantly repeated word, ’euthus. It means ‘immediately, straight away’, but it is at this stage more a literary device to move the action on quickly and to connect different passages than an indication of time specifically. It is especially prevalent in 1.9-2.12 where it rapidly takes us through, and connects together, Jesus’ initial activity, doing it in one smooth forward movement.

Excursus: Was John’s Baptism A Ritual Washing?

It is suggested by many that John’s baptism was intended to be seen as a ritual washing. But while the faith of Israel encouraged ritual washing, such washing was only ever preliminary. It was never seen as directly cleansing, for it is regularly followed by the statement ‘and shall not be clean until the evening’. Thus it was not seen as being itself the ‘cleansing’ agent. It merely washed away the earthiness of man preparatory to his approach to, and waiting on, God for cleansing. What cleansed was the waiting on God in obedience, and in the end the shedding of blood. For in Old Testament times water was not so much looked on as being for washing. It was rather what fed the ground and was life-giving, and was what satisfied the thirst of men.

Seeming exceptions to this suggestion that water does not indicate ‘cleansing’ found in Psalm 51.2 & 7 probably refer to washing in ‘blood sprinkled water’, for it is paralleled by ‘purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean’ which is a sacrificial reference. He is there speaking of being ‘washed’ in blood sprinkled water. Hyssop was used to sprinkle water purified with the ashes of a sacrifice, which was ‘a sin offering’ (Numbers 19.9; 17-19). So David probably has in mind being ‘washed’ in the ‘water for impurity for the removal of sin’, which was water containing the ashes of sacrifice, and was sprinkled to remove uncleanness. Notice in Numbers 19.19 how the careful distinction is made. First the person is cleansed with the sprinkling of the ash-connected water, for the removal of ceremonial defilement, then they wash their clothes and bathe themselves in ordinary water, then they wait for the evening when they become clean. Water is not itself seen as directly ‘cleansing’, it follows atonement and, removing earthly taintedness, prepares for cleansing.

So in the Old Testament the washing and bathing simply with water is carefully separated from the idea of cleansing, and seems to have more to do with becoming physically made ready to meet God, as a result of the removing of their earthiness and earthly odours. It is preparatory to cleansing. It is rather the water sprinkled with the ashes of the heifer which removes the ceremonial defilement and this is connected with the sin offering. Ezekiel also connects the sprinkled ‘purified’ water (seen as purified with the ashes of the heifer) with the purifying of Israel in a passage connected with the coming of the Spirit (Ezekiel 36.25-27). Notice there that God will use ‘clean water’, i.e. water that has, as it were, been cleansed.

Josephus sees this distinction between physical washing and spiritual cleansing clearly. He too misunderstood John’s baptism (as possibly did some Pharisees, the extreme ritual cleansers, but see comment below) and said of John that he was ‘a good man who bade the Jews to cultivate virtue by justice towards one another and piety towards God and come together for baptism; for immersion, he said, would be acceptable to God only if practised, not as an expiation for specific offences, but for the purification of the body, when the soul had been thoroughly cleansed by righteousness’. By this the baptism is degraded into an outward ceremony which washes the body after it has been truly cleansed rather than as being an essential element in the cleansing by righteousness. Josephus rightly recognises the secondary nature of ritual washing, and wrongly associates it with John’s baptism. (We must always remember that Josephus has a propaganda aim. He writes so as to ingratiate the Jews with their Roman masters).

But the baptism of John was central, not secondary. Attention was centred on it. It was the focal point of his ministry. And it was closely connected with repentance and admission of sin and its consequent forgiveness. It was hardly likely then that it indicated a mere ritual activity after the main event. It rather represented the very source of the life that produced righteousness.

Because of these difficulties reference is often made to proselyte washing, the initial washing which a proselyte to Judaism underwent on entering Judaism. But while that was sometimes, in passing, given a more significant meaning by one or two later Rabbis, that too was from all points of view a ritual washing, a leaving behind of the ritual defilement of the Gentile world. And there the proselyte washed himself, whereas it appears that here John administered the baptism (‘baptised by John’). Indeed to wash Jews in this way would have raised an outcry of which there is no evidence in the account. While the Pharisees questioned his right to perform a significant ceremony, they did not cavil at it by saying that such a baptism was intended only for Gentiles. Rather did they see it as an ‘end of the age’ event connected with the Messiah, Elijah or the Prophet, all expected figures of the end times (John 1.25). This fits well with their seeing it as signifying the idea of the pouring out of the Spirit at the end of the age.

Indeed the difference is significant. All Jewish washings were carried out by the person themselves. It was they who prepared themselves. All concentration was on their efforts. But John’s baptism was not self-administered. It was done by another in God’s name. It looked away from men’s own actions to God.

A better comparison might be Isaiah 1.16. ‘wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes, cease to do evil, learn to do well.’ But this does not refer to ritual washing. Isaiah had for the time being ‘done away’ with ritual (verses 11-15). It is a command to become clean in life, and ‘washing’ is there a picture of the activity involved in a practical getting rid of sin. This would certainly partly fit John’s position, but it will be noted that it was still to be self-applied and such an idea is not taken up by John. Indeed, unless we do connect it with the fruitfulness he describes, then he seemingly gives no indication of the significance of his baptism, something which would surely be quite remarkable. But if his baptism is a picture of the outpouring of Holy Spirit, of the pouring out of spiritual rain which produces fruitfulness, he explains it quite clearly. ‘I drenched you with water, He will drench you with Holy Spirit’, the first the symbol the second the reality.

This is further confirmed by the fact that later on baptism will be seen as a dying/rising again event, dying in Christ and rising with new life in the Spirit, a concept regularly connected in the Old Testament with the rain pouring from the heavens (e.g. Isaiah 44.1-5). And Peter specifically excludes the idea of removal of the defilement of the flesh from the significance of baptism (1 Peter 3.21). It is even questionable whether the words of Ananias to Paul, ‘arise, and be baptised, and wash away your sins calling on the name of the Lord’ (Acts 22.16) directly connects the washing with the baptism. The construction of the sentence separates the two, making them two distinct actions, and rather connects the ‘washing’ with the following phrase, the ‘calling on the name of the Lord’ (see Jeremiah 4.14), although he would no doubt make a connection between the two. It is also significant that he uses ’apolouo, which signifies washing by natural means (Job 9.30 LXX), not the louo which means ritual washing. He has in mind verses such as Isaiah 1.16 not ritual washing.

Had Ananias meant that the baptism directly symbolised the washing he would surely have said, ‘Arise and be baptised, washing away your sins (rather than ‘and wash away your sins’), and call on the name of the Lord’. But as mentioned Ananias in fact may well have had Isaiah 1.16-18 in mind where ‘washing’ means turning away from sin. However, whatever the case there, there is no other place where washing and baptism are closely connected. In Titus 3.5 it is ‘regeneration’ that is seen as ‘washing’ while in Ephesians 5.26 the washing of water is with the word. Thus in Acts Ananias may have had primarily in mind response to the word and the regenerating activity of God.

So the emphasis of the New Testament, when thinking of baptism, was not that it washed men, removing ‘dirt’ (even spiritual dirt), but that it fed their souls giving refreshment and life. It represented a pouring out on them of spiritual rain, so that out of their innermost beings might flow rivers of living water (John 7.38). It gave them life and made them life-giving in the same way as rain does the earth and drinking water does to men.

End of Excursus.

The Temptation in the Wilderness (1.12-13).

This is an essential part of the introduction. It is a reminder that the way ahead will not be smooth. Jesus has not come simply to reveal the power of God. His coming involves Him in being fully involved in temptation, for the battle is in the end a moral one. And it is a reminder that as Man, and as God’s Anointed One, He must face the consequences of being involved in a sinful world, and must overcome, whether it be over Satan and his testings, or over the wild beasts of unredeemed mankind (Daniel 7.3; Revelation 13.1, 11).

1.12 ‘And immediately the Spirit drives him forth into the wilderness.’

The implication behind this verse is clear. The Spirit Who has come on Him is now directing His life. His past life is over, and His new life has begun. He is now being driven by the Holy Spirit (compare Luke 4.1).

‘Drives Him forth.’ the verb is strong (softened in Matthew and Luke). There is a divine compulsion. He is driven by One Whom He cannot resist.

‘Into the wilderness.’ He was driven into the wilderness because He too must be a prophetic figure like John was, and in the wilderness He would meet God. John had prepared the way in the wilderness. Now He for whom John was preparing the way must go into that wilderness as He approached His future. It was to be a time of preparation and challenge. The temptations that followed suggest that a main reason for the move was to consider how He should approach His ministry. This time of pondering the future inevitably provided opportunity for Satan to introduce his false suggestions.

Others see the driving into the wilderness as being because there He could face up to all the powers of evil that some thought to be in the desert. But there is little evidence of the Jews thinking like that. The thought then would be that He went there precisely to meet them face to face. But if that were so we might have expected further reference to it somewhere. The impression given is that it was Satan alone, and his temptations, that He had to face, and that He had to face them, as it were, man to man.

1.13 ‘And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan, and he was with the wild beasts and the angels ministered to him.’

The sentence is pregnant with meaning. ‘In the wilderness’, the place of the prophet and of meeting with God. ‘Forty days’, the time Moses and Elijah spent with God. And now here was a greater than Moses and Elijah. ‘Tempted by Satan’, put to the test as to His future plans, with an attempt to persuade Him to take the easy way and compromise with God’s will. ‘With the wild beasts’, away from man and civilised society and among what was contrary to man, with no human company, only the company of wild beasts. Here was the greatest prophet of all. ‘And the angels ministered to Him’. He was under God’s own protection.

‘And he was in the wilderness forty days.’ Moses was in the mountain forty days and forty nights to receive God’s covenant and His instruction (Exodus 24.18; 34.28), and Elijah was in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights when he fled for his life and God spoke to him and renewed his commission (1 Kings 19.8). But both these were for ‘forty days and forty nights’. However we may put this down to Mark’s abbreviating tendency for Matthew makes it ‘forty days and forty nights’ (Matthew 4.2). Thus Matthew clearly makes this connection.

So Jesus is seen as following in the footsteps of Moses and Elijah, the most revered of the prophets (compare 9.4 and parallels). It is probably not without significance that they are both figures the like of whom were expected to come in the future, the ‘prophet like Moses’ who would know God face to face and have God’s words put in his mouth (Deuteronomy 18.15, 18 with 34.10) and the coming Elijah who would prepare the way for the Lord (Malachi 4.5), for they represented the Prophetic Law (Torah = ‘instruction’) and the Prophetic utterance. And now One was come Who was to outshine them both.

‘Tempted of Satan.’ Mark says nothing about the content of the temptations. He knows that the accounts of them are well known. But in order for them to be mentioned he must clearly have seen the testing as connected with His mission. And, as in fact we know from the other Gospels, the final temptations were as to how He would go about fulfilling His mission: the temptation to misuse His powers, the temptation to use marvels to win people over, the temptation to avoid the way of suffering by lowering Himself through compromise (see Matthew 4.1-11; Luke 4.1-13). But in the end they were temptations not to walk in the way of God.

We should note however that Mark gives the impression of continual temptation. Jesus is tempted throughout the forty days. In Matthew the final temptations come at the end. But this must surely be because those final temptations were the earlier temptations finally crystallised into a solid and specific form. The continual temptations are seen as having finally brought Jesus to the point of dealing with the three major ones then crystallised in His mind by the subtleties of the Devil. And, after a short break (Luke 4.13), the temptations will continue throughout His life (e.g. Matthew 16.23).

‘Satan.’ Meaning ‘the adversary’ and also called ‘the Devil’ (diabolos - the accuser, the slanderer. Used in LXX to translate ‘Satan’). He appears in the Old Testament as a heavenly being who leads men astray and who attacks God’s servants in the presence of God, opposing God’s purposes (1 Chronicles 21.1; Job 1.6-2.7; Zechariah 3.1). When he is cast down from that position it is a cause of great rejoicing (Revelation 12.9-10).

‘And He was with the wild beasts.’ In Psalm 91.11-13 domination of wild beasts goes hand in hand with the ministration of angels. Thus the thought here may well include the idea that He need not be afraid of them. He was with them, but because of His relationship of love with God they are subject to His control. They cannot touch Him. We can compare Daniel’s words, ‘My God sent His angel and shut the lions’ mouths’ (Daniel 6.22). But the idea is also surely that he was away from man with no one but the wild beasts for company (and the angels). The wild beasts are met with in desolate places (Isaiah 34.14).

In other Jewish literature (The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs) there appears to be a connection between wild beasts in desert places and demonic forces. Some have therefore suggested that there may thus be in this a further hint at His battle with Satanic forces, but there is no other hint of their presence here so that this is unlikely. (If this were the meaning we would expect the wild beasts to be mentioned earlier, prior to Satan’s activity).

However, the section chiasmus above brings out that these wild beasts may also be compared with the later antagonism of Jesus’ adversaries (3.22), just as the wild beasts which represented the godless nations were contrasted with the ‘son of man’ and the true people of God who truly served Him in Daniel 7. From the beginning then, Jesus is being made aware that He has come among the ‘wild beasts’. The world will not welcome Him. The way ahead will be rough.

‘And the angels ministered to Him.’ Compare Hebrews 1.14 and 2 Kings 6.15-17. Whether this means being fed as Elijah was (1 Kings 19.5-7), or protected as Elisha was (2 Kings 6.15-17) and as the Psalmist described (Psalm 91.11-12), we do not know. But it is a reminder that in the ‘heavenly places’, the spiritual realm where the Christian lives and wrestles with evil (Ephesians 6.12), there are those who quietly and unobtrusively, unseen and unheralded, provide sustenance and help to the tempted (Hebrews 1.14).

The First Stage in the Ministry of Jesus. (1.14-39).

Now that He had been especially empowered and had determined the path that He would tread Jesus leaves the wilderness behind and goes out among men in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4.14), after John’s imprisonment, to proclaim the good news from God in Galilee. His purpose was to proclaim that ‘the Kingly Rule of God is at hand’ (1.14-15), to begin the establishment of His band of Apostles with a view to spreading His word (1.16-20), to teach with the authority of the One on Whom the Spirit had come (1.22) and to reveal His power over evil spirits (1.23-28) and over sickness and disease (1.29-34) as He went through all the cities of Galilee (1.35-39). That it was an urgent mission is made clear (1.38), and its two main aims were to be the preaching of the Kingly Rule of God and the casting out of evil spirits (1.39). The battle for the world’s soul had commenced in earnest.

Had it not been for John’s Gospel (3.22-4.42) we might have seen this as His first activity. But this may well be because Mark sees this movement into Galilee as being the first stage in the establishment of Jesus’ own ministry in contrast with John’s and is concerned with this and with the further stage of the calling and appointing of the Apostles. If Jesus’ ministry alongside John was seen as Jesus assisting in John’s ministry, for He was careful not to supersede John and withdrew when He began to overshadow him (John 4.1), Mark may well not have been concerned to draw attention to it as it had little to do with his purpose. He is in a hurry to deal with the main ministry of Jesus and is depicting a triumphant movement forwards. He is concerned to demonstrate that Jesus is the Son of God.

Alternately, but less likely, for he must surely have enquired into what had gone on in the period between Jesus’ baptism and John’s imprisonment, it may be that he was not aware of what had gone before. It is far more likely, however, that it is rather a deliberate choice on the part of Mark so that He can move immediately on to Jesus own unique ministry, proclaiming that the Kingly Rule of God was within reach. The preparations were over, the forerunner had broken the ground, and now the great reality had come. What came in between could be seen as irrelevant. It may be accepted that Mark’s knowledge of the period may have been scanty (Peter may not have been present at much of it) but the fact that Mark carefully states that this was after John had been imprisoned indicates that he knew that there was a gap to be considered.

Analysis of 1.14-39.

  • a Now after that John was delivered up, Jesus comes into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingly Rule of God is at hand, repent, and believe in the gospel” (14-15).
  • b Jesus calls Simon, Andrew, James and John to follow Him and become fishers of men (16-20).
  • c They go into Capernaum and immediately on the sabbath day He enters into the synagogue and teaches (21).
  • d They are astonished at His teaching because He teaches them as One having authority, and not as the scribes (22).
  • e Jesus delivers a man with an unclean spirit by commanding it to come out of him (23-26).
  • d And they are all amazed, insomuch that they question among themselves, saying, “What is this? a new teaching! With authority He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him” (27).
  • c The report of Him goes out immediately everywhere into all the region of Galilee round about (28).
  • b They then enter the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John, and Jesus heals Simon’s wife’s mother who then ministers to them. And at evening, when the sun had set, they bring to Him all who were sick, and those who were possessed with devils, and He heals them all and will not allow the devils to speak because they know Him (compare 3.11) (29-34).
  • a Jesus insists on going on to the next towns to preach there as well, because that is the reason why He has come, and He goes into their synagogues throughout all Galilee, preaching and casting out demons (35-39).

Note that in ‘a’ Jesus comes into Galilee and proclaims the good news of the Kingly Rule of God, and in the parallel does so throughout Galilee revealing God’s Kingly Rule by casting out demons. In ‘b’ Jesus calls four disciples to become fishers of men, and in the parallel He enters Simon’s house with the four, and there He reveals His power to heal and cast out evil spirits. In ‘c’ He teaches in a synagogue of Capernaum, and in the parallel the report about Him goes out throughout Galilee. In ‘d’ they are astonished at His teaching and authority, and similarly in the parallel. Centrally in ‘e’ Jesus delivers a man from possession by an unclean spirit.

The Message Which Is Proclaimed (1.14-15).

This summary of Jesus’ message (He clearly said a lot more) emphasises the central point in His ministry. He has come to establish the Kingly Rule of God among men, ready for its final consummation. This is the Good News, which, as we saw in verse 1, is summed up in Jesus Christ. Both aspects of His Kingly Rule are clearly brought out throughout the Gospels.

Analysis of 1.14-15.

  • a Now after John was delivered up, Jesus came into Galilee preaching the Gospel of God (1.14).
  • b And saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingly Rule of God is at hand” (1.15a).
  • a “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (1.15b).

Note that in ‘a’ Jesus proclaims the Gospel of God, and in the parallel He calls on men to repent and believe that Gospel. In ‘b’ we have the content of that Gospel.

1.14-15 ‘Now after John was delivered up, Jesus came into Galilee preaching the Gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingly Rule of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel”.’

‘After John was delivered up.’ This is a reference to John’s imprisonment, which Mark in fact tells us about later (6.17-29), but here there is probably lying behind it a deliberate hint that there is yet Another Who will be ‘delivered up’ later. Mark’s Gospel begins with a delivering up and will end with a delivering up, for God works through tribulation, and His people must expect nothing less. The shadow of John’s death thus lies over the ministry of Jesus, Whose ministry will also lie under that shadow. But John’s ‘delivering up’ is purposely stated so that it might also be recognised that John’s preparatory ministry was now over and Jesus’ own ministry had begun, before He too would be delivered up. It answers the question, ‘what happened to John?’

‘Jesus came into Galilee preaching the Gospel (good news) of God.’ Mark is concerned to pinpoint the importance of Galilee in the ministry of Jesus. He stresses that when He opened His own distinctive ministry it was to Galilee that He first came. This is probably in order to stress the uniqueness of His message. He had not come to pander to the religious authorities, but to reach out to men everywhere. Thus He began away from Jerusalem, in a place where men and women were more open to receive His message.

While Galilee was Jewish territory it was also known as ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ (Matthew 4.15, compare Isaiah 9.1). It was separated from Judaea by Samaria, which lay in between, and throughout its history necessarily had closer contact with Gentile nations. Indeed for a time it had been mainly Gentile territory and had had to be re-colonised by the Jews. It was of this area that the prophet Isaiah had promised that ‘the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, on them has the light shined’ (9.2). It had thus a prophetic future which was largely ignored by the Judaeans. It was not as hidebound as Judaea, and indeed was consequently looked down on and treated with some hosility by Judaeans because it was a little unorthodox, and it was therefore more open to receive new truth (and also innovations which were not so good). But parts of it were fiercely Jewish in its own slightly unorthodox way.

‘Preaching the good news of God.’ John had preached that the good news was coming. Now Jesus could proclaim that it was here. The word means to proclaim like a herald. The genitive ‘of God’ could be translated ‘about God’ or ‘from God’, but perhaps we are to see it as meaning ‘the good news that God has to give to His people’ or ‘the good news that God had earlier promised’. The word indicates something special that is worth celebrating, and it relates directly to God. This good news had already been mentioned by Isaiah 61.1. The Spirit anointed prophet would come with the good news of God’s deliverance, to bring comfort and strength to His people, and to introduce the last days. Compare also Isaiah 52.7 where the good news is of what is good, and is of ‘salvation’ and of the fact that God reigns.

‘And saying, “The time is fulfilled. The Kingly Rule of God is at hand”.’ This was the essence of His message, that the new beginning was here. For centuries men had waited for it and longed for it, but now the necessary waiting time was ‘fulfilled’, the centuries of waiting were over, the appointed time was now here. What the prophets had pointed to was now happening. The verb is in the perfect tense. ‘Has been and now is fulfilled.’ It is not something in the future. It is now.

‘The Kingly Rule of God is at hand.’ God’s kingship, His rule over His people, had been established at Sinai (Deuteronomy 33.5; contrast 1 Samuel 7.7). But the history of the Old Testament bore witness to the fact that it had never become a practical reality. Right from the beginning they had fought against it. Indeed that was why they had sought a king over them (1 Samuel 10.17-19). And throughout their history they had constantly rebelled, so that it had become apparent that His rule could not be established because of their disobedience. In the words of Isaiah 63.19, ‘we are become as those over whom you never bore rule, as those who were not called by your name’.

Thus the prophets declared that their wretched condition, so unlike what had been promised, was due to this failure. The result was that the prophets then began to look forward to a future day when God would change the hearts of His people by the pouring out of His Spirit and would establish His rule (Isaiah 44.3-6; Ezekiel 36.26-28; Jeremiah 31.31-34; 33.3-4), and this was linked with the coming of a great king (Isaiah 11.1-5; Jeremiah 30.9; Ezekiel 37.24) and the coming of a great prophet (Isaiah 42.1-4; 49.1-6; 52.13-53.12; 61.1-3). Now, says Jesus, that time is here. God is going to act to establish His rule.

But His kingship was not going to be limited to a particular area of land. It was to be kingly rule over His people. It was to be a living kingdom. We may understand this idea of kingship better if we think of the king of a desert tribe. He owns no land, his kingdom is his people. They have no settled area where they live but where they go, there goes the kingdom. And if you were to meet them and produce your map, telling them that you are not in fact in their kingdom but in someone else’s kingdom, they would laugh and jeer, and you would soon learn that you were very much in their kingdom. For where this king’s rule was established at any point in time, there was his kingdom. And if two such tribes were to intermingle for a short period there would be two kingdoms mingled together, but each with a separate identity.

So it is with ‘the Kingly Rule of God’. Where God’s rule is established, there is His kingship revealed, and thus in a real sense where Jesus was, there too was the kingdom. And where his true people are who are in submission to His rule, there is a manifestation of His kingship. Thus the Kingly Rule of God was both within them (the acceptance of His rule) and among them (because Jesus the king and His people were there) (Matthew 6.33; 12.28; 21.31, 43; Mark 4.26, 30; 9.1; 10.14-15; 12.34; Luke 7.28; 9.27; 10.9; 11.20; 16.16; 17.21; 18.17; John 3.3-5; Acts 8.12; 14.22; 20.25; 28.23, 31; Romans 14.17; 1 Corinthians 4.20).

But it has, of course its vital future aspect, for God’s rule will never be fully established over all men until that day when all that is contrary to Him is done away, and those who are His enter into His everlasting kingdom (Isaiah 24.23; Obadiah 1.21; Zephaniah 3.15; Zechariah 14.9; Mark 14.25; Luke 13.29; 22.16-18; 19.11; 21.31; 1 Corinthians 6.9-10; 15.50; Galatians 5.21; Colossians 4.11; 2 Thessalonians 1.5). The one is preparatory to, and a part of, the other. For in the end the Kingly Rule of God is an eternal Kingly Rule, ‘Kingly Rule belongs to the Lord, and He rules over the nations’ (Psalm 22.28). What is happening here is that men are now being called on consciously to have a part in it

‘Is at hand (has come near).’ The verb appears twice more in Mark, in 11.1 and 14.42. In 11.1 it refers to drawing near to Jerusalem and in 14.42 to Judas as drawing near in the garden and being ‘at hand’. So we may well see this as meaning that God’s kingship has now drawn near to them and is at hand (perfect tense), available to those who respond. It confronts them in Jesus (compare 12.34; Matthew 12.28).

But others would see it as meaning that it is approaching but not yet come. It is ever ‘at hand’, impending but not having arrived, thus seeking to stir men into response. This would then refer to the kingship in its future aspect. But it sits ill with the use of the perfect tense for it simply to be looking to an unrealised future. The whole point is that the time has come. John had looked ahead to what was to be, but Jesus is now introducing the reality. Not of course that His future Kingly Rule is excluded, for all who come under His Kingly Rule do so both in the present and for the future. They are His now, and His for ever.

‘Repent and believe in the Gospel.’ Again we note that repentance, a change of heart and mind and a turning to God, is central to the message. Without repentance there can be no kingly rule, for repentance involves turning from sin and rebellion against the King’s laws, and accepting the rule of the King. And this is what the good news is, that the King is here and they can believe in Him and respond to Him. They need no longer be cut off from God, for the way to God is now open.

Here we have both the essential similarity and the essential difference between the message of Jesus and that of John. Both demand a change of heart towards sin and towards God, both promise future blessing. But Jesus has now introduced the new element that the King is here and personal response is now possible, and it is He Who will usher in the age of the Spirit. Eternal life can be enjoyed now (John 5.24; 1 John 5.13). The new age under the king has begun. What is now required is response.

There are in fact two aspects to the work of the Spirit. On the one hand he has worked in believers in the Old Testament as evidenced in the Psalms (139.7; 143.10) and is evidenced as at work in the Gospels (Matthew 10.20; Luke 4.18; 10.21), especially in John’s Gospel (John 3.5-8; 4.23-24; 6.63), but on the other there is to be an outpouring of Holy Spirit which will so far exceed all that has gone before, that it can be described as ‘the coming of the Spirit’ (John 7.39).

‘The Gospel.’ It is good news of deliverance (Isaiah 61.1-3) and of the certain fulfilment of God’s great promise (Ephesians 3.6); it is good news of peace, peace with God and peace from God (Ephesians 6.15); it is good news of truth, newly manifested as never before, and of the arrival of Him Who is the truth (Galatians 2.5; Colossians 1.5), and brings hope for the future (Colossians 1.23). It is the good news of salvation and immortality, deliverance and eternal life (Ephesians 1.13; 2 Timothy 1.10), the two great yearnings of the heart of man when he truly thinks about himself. It is the good news that ‘God reigns’ (Isaiah 52.7). And it is now forcing itself on the world in Jesus. But it must still be responded to. Without response it is not good news.

The Authority of Jesus Is Revealed in The Calling of the First Apostles (1.16-20).

The last thing that anyone would have thought of when they heard Jesus’ message about the Kingly Rule of God would be that He would then call on a group of professional fishermen to have a part in the transmission of that message. It is as though Mark is emphasising the lowliness of the beginnings of God’ Kingly Rule. First the Coming One Himself is from lowly Nazareth, now the heralds are lowly fishermen.

But Simon (Peter) and Andrew had both already expressed their interest in Jesus, the latter at least having been a disciple of John the Baptiser (John 1.40-42). And John (the Apostle) was also probably with them in those early days as the unnamed of the two disciples of John (John 1.35). While John the Baptiser was ministering Jesus would not officially call them (as He did call Philip - John 1.43), for they were John’s disciples, and thus after the imprisonment of John they had returned to their homes and their livelihoods. Now Jesus sought them out and officially called them to ‘follow Him’, that is, to commit their lives to hearing and responding to His teaching, so that from that moment on they were to have complete trust in Him and were to be declarers of God’s Kingly Rule.

Mark sees this as a further step in the revelation of the Kingly Rule of God. The anointed representative of the King, indeed the King Himself (John 1.49), is seen as having the right to call men to leave everything and follow Him, to assist in the task that is now His. He deliberately makes his account stark and demanding (compare Luke 5.1-11), revealing that the One sealed by God, has the right immediately to demand what He will. It is the demand of a king.

Discipleship was a common feature in Palestine. The Rabbis had their disciples who came and learned from them and followed them. But they did so by choice, and they were not specifically called on to leave all. Jesus’ call to follow Him was, however, all embracing and permanent (9.34-37 compare Matthew 19.29). It was the call of One with sovereign rights. He spoke as One Who brooked no refusal and all the emphasis is on this. They must follow Him all the way, for there was a work for them to do in the future.

Analysis of 1.16-20.

  • a And passing along by the sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Come you after Me, and I will make you to become fishers of men” (16-17)
  • b And immediately they left the nets, and followed Him (18).
  • a And going on a little further, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the boat mending the nets. And immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went after Him (19-20).

Note that in ‘a’ we have the call of Simon and Andrew, and in the parallel the call of James and John. Centrally in ‘b’ we have the result of the call of Simon and Andrew (with James and John the result of the call is not a separate statement).

1.16-18 ‘And passing along by the Sea of Galilee he saw Simon, and Andrew, Simon’s brother, casting a net in the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.” And immediately they left the nets and followed him.’

Luke describes the whole incident in great detail (5.1-11) but here in Mark we have the bare bones. Mark is concerned to express the stark demand, and the response to the Kingly Rule of God. ‘Passing along by the Sea of Galilee.’ It was more strictly a Lake (so Luke) but the use of ‘Sea’ is typically Semitic.

‘He saw Simon and Andrew, Simon’s brother casting a net in the sea.’ This condenses all that happened in a single phrase, but its mention is necessary to illuminate the phrase that follows later about ‘fishers of men’. It was because they were fishermen that Jesus told them that they would become fishers of men. He suited His illustrations to the understanding of His hearers.

‘Come after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.’ The call was absolute. They were to follow Him and to be no longer fishermen, but fishers of men. Note how the call comes even while they are fishing. Their abandonment of their occupation is a requirement for following Him. Interestingly the illustration of fishing men is used elsewhere in the sense of fishing men for judgment (Jeremiah 16.16), but it is in itself neutral. And besides when God’s judgment goes forth the people learn righteousness. The idea was that from now on they would use their abilities and skills to win men under the kingship of God. Andrew had already shown himself adept at that (John 1.41). And now Jesus was making clear that He had a wide ministry for them in view.

‘They left the nets and followed Him.’ The comment that they left their nets is to stress that they left instantly and that it was permanent. The nets were left just where they were, although no doubt looked after by the family. They were no longer needed. We may not be called on to leave our nets, but we are to use them for God’s purposes. ‘Followed Him.’ The idea of following in this sense involves trust, commitment and obedience.

1.19 ‘And going on a little further he saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the boat mending the nets, and immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and went after him.’

Comparing with Luke we can gather that James and John had returned to shore after assisting with the large catch. Then they had gone back to their nets, leaving Simon talking with Jesus. Now Jesus approached them and called them too. The unconscious testimony of the eyewitness is found here. The cost and poignancy of the situation is made obvious. The father is left with only the hired servants, and the business they are leaving is a prosperous one, for fish was the staple diet of the people. Yet they followed immediately and willingly. The impact and authority of Jesus is made clear. Note that here it is not said that they left their nets. Those remained in use by others. In their case they left their business and their loved ones.

(We note that in Mark this incident comes before that in which Jesus deals with the man with the unclean spirit in Capernaum (verses 21-28) while in Luke it comes after. This illustrates the fact that Mark puts his material in the order which will bring home his point rather than following a detailed chronology. He wants the calling of the disciples to be described here immediately after the proclamation of the kingship. As in chapter two he marshals his material carefully. He is not writing a chronological life of Jesus, it is not ‘in order’ but rather a portrayal).

Jesus Reveals His Authority In His Teaching And By Casting Out An Unclean Spirit (1.21-28).

Having revealed His authority by calling men to abandon everything and follow Him, He now reveals that authority in His teaching, as He tells men and women straightly what God requires of them, and by casting out an unclean Spirit which identifies Him as ‘the Holy One of God’.

Analysis.

  • a And they go into Capernaum, and immediately on the sabbath day He entered into the synagogue and taught (21).
  • b And they were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as having authority, and not as the scribes (22).
  • c And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, saying, “What have we to do with you, you Jesus of Nazareth? Are you come to destroy us? I know you who you are, the Holy One of God” (23-24).
  • d And Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Hold your peace, and come out of him” (25).
  • c And the unclean spirit, tearing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him (26).
  • b And they were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What is this? a new teaching! with authority He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him (27).
  • a And the report of Him went out immediately everywhere into all the region of Galilee round about” (28).

Note that in ‘a’ Jesus teaches in the synagogue, and in the parallel His message continues to go out. In ‘b’ the people are astonished at His teaching and His authority, and in the parallel they are similarly astonished. In ‘c’ the unclean spirit reacts to Jesus, and in the parallel it has to obey Him. Centrally in ‘d’ Jesus reveals His authority by commanding the unclean spirit to come out.

The Authority of Jesus is Revealed in The Way He Teaches (1.21-22).

1.21-22 ‘And they go into Capernaum, and straightway on the Sabbath day he entered into the synagogue and taught, and they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as having authority and not as the scribes.’

Mark rarely mentions place names but he mentions one here. Capernaum (originally ‘village of Nahum’) was a fairly large township located at Tell Hum by the side of the Sea of Galilee, on its North West shore. It was near a copious spring, the ‘place of seven springs’. It was regularly visited by Jesus and He and His family made it their home when they left Nazareth (Matthew 4.13). It would later come under condemnation because in spite of the mighty works revealed there it on the whole failed to fully respond (Matthew 11.23). It is interesting in this regard that Jesus is never described as being in the larger cities of Galilee such as Sepphoris or Tarichaea or in Tiberias. He appears mainly to have kept to the smaller towns and villages and the open countryside. Possibly He felt that His ministry would be more effective in those areas and was satisfied that people from the larger cities would come out to hear Him, and would do it in places where they were more likely to give more careful heed to His words.

When the Sabbath day came, the people would regularly go to the Synagogue to pray and hear the Scriptures read and taught. Synagogues were basically places for formal prayer and teaching the Scriptures, set up in different towns and locally controlled. They had probably originally arisen in the Exile, and there were synagogues scattered among many nations. In larger cities such as Jerusalem there would be a number of synagogues catering for different classes of Jews. The Ruler of the Synagogue could and would call on any competent distinguished visitor to speak, and we have no record of Jesus ever having been refused the privilege, although no doubt such a situation might have arisen at certain synagogues in Jerusalem had He sought it.

The Ruler of the Synagogue was responsible for the administration of the affairs of the Synagogue, and especially for the arrangements for the services, but he was not himself specifically a teacher. There was also the Chazzan who was responsible for taking out and storing away the scrolls on which the Scriptures were written, and the Dispensers of Alms who distributed the daily cash collections to the poor. The synagogue as a whole was administered by ruling officials also called ‘rulers’ (5.35). But there was no duly appointed teacher.

So Jesus entered the Synagogue and was called on to teach. And His teaching astonished and excited them. Although in general following Rabbinic patterns He spoke as One Who could speak on His own authority, as a prophet of God, rather than like their own teachers, the Scribes, who taught by citing other authorities, especially the traditions of the Elders, the oral tradition built up in the past. An example of Jesus’ authoritative teaching can be found in Matthew 5 where He regularly says, ‘but I say to you’. Yet to some extent He won the respect of these teachers for they also called Him ‘Teacher’ (10.17; 12.19 compare Matthew 8.19 which is near Capernaum).

But Mark’s purpose is to draw out the authority of the teaching of Jesus. He is the One Who has received the Spirit, appoints lifelong disciples and teaches with unusual authority. For here is One Who is unique and authoritative in the power of the Spirit of God, a prophet and more than a prophet.

The Authority of Jesus is Revealed by His Power over Evil Spirits (1.23-28).

The authority of Jesus was now further revealed in that He was now faced with a man possessed by an evil spirit which was so distraught by His presence that it cried out and challenged Him. It declared Him to be ‘the Holy One of God’. Jesus then rebuked the spirit and it left the man with some violence. The result was amazement on the part of those who saw it, and they linked it with, and included it in, His authoritative teaching. It should be noted here that the word ‘authority’ (’exousia) was often used in Hellenistic Greek to express the idea of a combination of supernatural power with a supernatural knowledge of divine things. Both of these things have been revealed by the Spirit-filled Jesus.

1.23-24 ‘And immediately there was in their Synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out saying, “What have we in common with you, you Jesus of Nazareth? Are you come to destroy us? I know you, who you are, the Holy One of God”.’

‘A man with an unclean spirit.’ The term ‘unclean spirit’ was used by the Pharisees to refer to evil spirits. It was in contrast with the ‘cleanness’ and purity of God. The point is that these spirits were not wholesome. They were seen as excluded from God’s presence by their uncleanness, their lack of moral fitness. We should note that in Matthew 4.24 a clear distinction is made between those who are diseased, those who are lunatic and those who are possessed with devils. It is wrong to think that in those days men necessarily saw all disease and madness as resulting from evil spirits. But we do well to beware before we dismiss the idea of the existence of evil spirits (although we must beware of those who see such spirits everywhere). Examples of modern day spirit possession, including the crying out and rending of individuals, although happily fairly rare in countries with a strong Christian background (as in Old Testament days among Israel), have been clearly authenticated as having genuinely occurred by men of high reputation even in such countries. And so has the ability of such spirits to remain unrecognised until something disturbs them. Thus the man who entered the synagogue may not even have been aware that he was possessed until ‘he’ was forced to cry out (I say ‘he’ because the spirit uses the person’s lips).

‘And he cried out saying, “What have we in common, you Jesus of Nazareth? Are you come to destroy us? I know you, who you are, the Holy One of God”.’ The holy aura that surrounded Jesus, largely unnoticed by man but clearly obvious to the ‘unclean’ spirit, was unbearable to it, forcing it to ‘cry out’ in fear (the word indicates strong emotion) and acknowledge His unique holiness, saying ‘You are the Holy One of God.’ For the awareness that it had of His power and authority, and of His unique position with God, made it afraid as it considered the possibility of its own destruction along with its fellows. They must have thought, ‘why else should such a One have come to earth if not to destroy us?’. We know the answer to that, but they may not have believed it or even known it. The plurals ‘we’ and ‘us’ reflect the fact that it is speaking on behalf of its fellows.

‘What have we in common?’ Literally ‘what is there to us and to you?’ They are saying - ‘we have nothing to do with each other. Keep away.’ Note the plural ‘us’. He may be including himself with the spirit, indicating the fact that a spirit possessed person can move quickly from speaking normally to being spoken through by different spirits using different voices, or the spirit may be referring to the whole ‘unclean spirit’ world.

‘The Holy One of God’ is the title by which Simon Peter would later address Jesus in John 6.69. Perhaps such instances as these established the idea in Peter’s mind. It was not a known Messianic title. But we are not dealing with Messiahship here. Whatever men thought, the evil spirits were aware of Jesus’ special powers and authority, and of His unique holiness. They knew that they were dealing with One Who had a supernatural background, totally separated to and infilled by God, even if they were not aware of His full deity. Compare the use of ‘holy ones’ for the Watchers in Daniel 4.13, 17, 23, and of angels in Psalm 89.7; Hosea 11.12; Zechariah 14.5. Here was One Who was greater than those ‘holy ones’. He was the supreme Holy One, God’s Holy One.

The title ‘Holy One of Israel’ was a title regularly used of God in the Old Testament (2 Kings 19.22; Psalm 71.22; 78.41; 89.18 (where He was also seen as ‘our King’) and in Isaiah 24 times, and once as the ‘Holy One of Jacob’, and God as incomparable is called ‘the Holy One’ in Isaiah 40.25; 43.15; 49.7; Hosea 11.9; Habakkuk 1.12; 3.3. In Isaiah 57.15 His ‘name is Holy’. So such a title has close connections with God and makes the One so uniquely designated to be of divine rank, the title being almost the equivalent of ‘Son of God’.

‘Your Holy One’, which is the equivalent of ‘the Holy One of God’, is found in Psalm 16.10 where it refers firstly to David as the anointed of God. It could therefore even better be applied to the coming greater David, the Messiah as evidenced by Acts 2.25-28, but this latter application may have arisen from this very title used of Jesus here and in John 6.69.

Israel is also called ‘His Holy One’ (Isaiah 10.17), possibly as a purified Israel who would burn up Assyria (compare Obadiah 1.18), but it may be that we are to see there ‘the Light of Israel’ as God Himself. And ‘holy ones’ (saints) is a title sometimes applied to the people of God when thought of as living in obedience, especially in the Psalms. In all cases it denotes special, unique relationship. But Jesus is not just one of the holy ones. He is the Holy One.

It has been suggested that the spirit was here trying to use Jesus ‘name’ in order to control Him, for it was believed in Jesus’ day that obtaining a person’s name gave some kind of control over that person. But it is more likely that this was the reaction of the spirit in its uncleanness towards One Whose supreme holiness it had to acknowledge. It was aware from the start that it had no means of controlling Him because of Who He was.

1.25-26 ‘And Jesus rebuked him saying, “Be quiet and come out of him.” And the unclean spirit, tearing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.’

Jesus rejected the testimony of the evil spirit. He did not want testimony from such sources, although He would later point to His power over evil spirits as evidence that He was from God and that God’s Kingly Rule had come (3.21-30; compare Matthew 12.28). But that was only because of necessity at the accusations levelled against Him. The word for ‘be quiet’ means literally, ‘Be muzzled.’ He then commanded the spirit to come out, and the immediate result was that, convulsing the man, and crying with a loud voice, it came out.

‘Jesus rebuked it.’ The word for rebuke is the equivalent of that used for the divine rebuke in the Old Testament, a rebuke which was powerfully effective (2 Samuel 22.16; Job 26.11; Psalm 80.16; 104.7; 106.9). It is especially used when YHWH rebukes Satan in Zechariah 3.2, after which no more is heard from him. Thus we are to see in this rebuke the power of the Lord. It carried divine authority. In this case it was addressed to the evil spirit.

‘Be quiet.’ Jesus never accepts the testimony of evil spirits. This is not on a parallel with His attempt to prevent people spreading the idea that He was the Messiah. He did that when on Jewish territory because the Jews had the wrong idea about Messiahship, seeking a military leader against the Romans (see John 6.15). But He was quite happy to tell a Samaritan woman in Samaria that He was the Messiah (John 4.25-26), and content that she should inform her fellow Samaritans. And He would later tell a man in Gentile Decapolis to go and tell what the Lord had done for Him and how He had had compassion on him (5.19). But He wanted no testimony from evil spirits which might give men the wrong ideas about Him. He did not want to be seen as associated with them in any way.

‘And come out of him.’ The command was clear. It must relinquish its hold on the man.

‘And the unclean spirit, tearing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.’ To the awe of the watchers there was a terrible cry and the man was clearly visibly distressed and convulsed, and then the spirit was gone. The man was in his right mind. This is a regular description of release from genuine spirit possession.

1.27 ‘And they were all amazed in so much that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching. He commands with authority even the unclean spirits and they obey him”.’

The people were all amazed. They thought that it must be some new teaching, not in a wrong sense but in the sense of being more powerfully true. This suggests that while there were exorcists around, they had not been quite as effective as this. They had used incantations and special formulae, but they had not been able to dismiss the evil spirits with a word. And they recognised that it meant that He had a special divine authority, which went hand in hand with divine knowledge.

‘What is this? A new teaching.’ We might bring in ‘with authority’ here as part of the phrase and translate, ‘What is this? A new authoritative teaching (a new teaching with authority)? He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey Him?’ This would agree with what seems to be the correct text. But either way the significance is the same.

‘He commands the unclean spirits and they obey Him.’ Jesus will Himself later point out what this proved, that Satan in his strength was being defeated, and that this could only be by the Spirit of God (Matthew 12.28), thus demonstrating that He Himself was a man of the Spirit and a ‘man of God’. But His claim to be ‘the Stronger than he’ would go even further than that.

It is noteworthy that although He did this on the Sabbath it was not at this stage questioned, (but perhaps that was only because it required simply a word of command).

1.28 ‘And immediately the report about him went out everywhere into all the regions of Galilee round about.’

The news spread like wildfire. ‘This man preaches with remarkable authority, and He casts out evil spirits just by a command.’ The result was that there was a great and growing interest in Him and people began to seek Him out from all over Galilee. Nearly everyone was talking about Him. His outward popularity was growing and His unique status was being recognised.

Note on The Casting Out Of Evil Spirits.

Jesus approach to the casting out of evil spirits was different from His contemporaries who used very different methods of exorcism. Thus Josephus said of a certain Eleazar, ‘he put to the nose of the possessed man a ring which had under its seal one of the roots prescribed by Solomon, and then, as the man smelled it, drew out the demon through his nostrils, and when the man at once fell down, adjured the demon never to come back into him, speaking Solomon’s name and reciting the incantations which he had composed.’ We note here the use of the name of Solomon, whereas Jesus cast them out in His own name and His disciples in the name of Jesus. We also note the use by others of plants and incantations. This contrasts strongly with Jesus’ method of using a word of command.

Had Jesus used the name of Solomon He might have avoided for a while the accusations of the Pharisees, but because He commanded on His own authority they accused Him of being in league with Satan. After all the only alternative was to admit that Jesus was more powerful than Satan, as Jesus Himself pointed out. We can compare here how Jesus asked in whose name the sons of Israel, whom the Pharisees acknowledged, cast out evil spirits (Matthew 12.27). According to the Pharisees’ argument they were thus aligning Solomon with Satan.

But Jesus cannot just be seen as another exorcist. It was considered vital in exorcisms that the exorcist carried out precisely all the prescribed rules and regulations and made use of the correct quasi-magical substances and incantations otherwise it was considered that he would not be successful. This was in total contrast with Jesus exercising of His own authority. Furthermore at Qumran they saw exorcism and healing as being one process, for illness and evil spirits were seen as linked, whereas Jesus specifically differentiated the one from the other. It is clear that Jesus knew exactly what He was doing, and had the power and authority to do it, and did not accept that all disease was the result of the activity of evil spirits.

Josephus then points out that ‘Eleazar placed a cup or foot-basin full of water a little way off, and commanded the demon as it went out of the man, to overturn it and make known to the spectators that he had left the man.’ This is an interesting parallel with Jesus allowing the evil spirits to enter the pigs in the case of the Gadarene demoniac, the difference being that Jesus allowed it because the evil spirits sought His permission because they did not wish to be totally disembodied. But it does serve to demonstrate why Jesus gave that permission so that all would know that the evil spirits had left the man.

End of Note.

The Power of Jesus Is Revealed in Healing And A Further Casting Out Of Spirits, But He Emphasises That His Main Ministry Must Be That of Preaching in Their Synagogues (1.29-39).

Having revealed His authority in His teaching and in the casting out of an unclean spirit with a word of command, Jesus carries out a healing ministry, commencing with Peter’s mother-in-law in Capernaum, and which also includes the casting out of unclean spirits who are ‘aware of Who He is’, although we do not learn the answer to the puzzle until 3.11, where they declare Him to be the Son of God (unless it refers to the reference to Him as ‘the Holy One of God’). But these healings are only secondary to His main purpose which is to proclaim the Kingly Rule of God (verse 15). Note the deliberate connection between His healings and exorcisms as taking place ‘in the evening’ and His parallel prayer life which takes place ‘early next morning’, illustrating what He later tells His disciples in 9.29 that the foundation of His successful ministry is, humanly speaking, to be found, in prayer.

Analysis of 1.29-39.

  • a And immediately, when they were come out of the synagogue, they came into the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John (29).
  • b Now Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick of a fever, and immediately they tell Him of her, and He came and took her by the hand, and raised her up, and the fever left her, and she ministered to them (30-31).
  • c And in the evening, when the sun set, they brought to Him all who were sick, and those who were possessed with devils, and all the city was gathered together at the door (32-33).
  • d And He healed many who were sick with various kinds of diseases, and cast out many devils, and He would not allow the devils to speak, because they knew Him (34).
  • c And in the morning, a great while before day, He rose up and went out, and departed into a desert place, and there prayed (35).
  • b And Simon and those who were with him followed after Him, and they found Him, and say to Him, “All are seeking you”. And He says to them, “Let us go elsewhere into the next towns, that I may preach there also, for to this end I came forth” (36-38)
  • a And He went into their synagogues throughout all Galilee, preaching and casting out devils” (39).

Note that in ‘a’ they come out of the synagogue, and in the parallel Jesus went to their synagogues throughout Galilee. In ‘b’ Simon and others are involved in seeking Jesus help for Simon’s mother-in-law, and He heals her and she ministers to them, and in the parallel Simon and others seek His help for the crowds, and He explains that He must move on and minister to others. In ‘c’ we learn what Jesus did in the evening, when He was surrounded by crowds, and in the parallel what He did in the early morning when He went alone with God because He knew that He must move on. Centrally in ‘d’ He would not let the demons speak because they knew Him. Mark possibly deliberately leaves this unexplained, probably because He wants his readers to think about it, but he provides the explanation later in 3.11.

Jesus Reveals His Power Over Disease and Evil Spirits (1.29-34).

The revelation of Jesus’ new power following His reception of Holy Spirit continued. Not only did He appoint disciples, teach with authority, and cast out evil spirits, but He revealed His power over every kind of disease.

1.29-31 ‘And immediately when they were come from the Synagogue they went into the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick of a fever, and straightway they tell him of her. And he came and took her by the hand and raised her, and the fever left her, and she ministered to their needs.’

Leaving the Synagogue they naturally went to the home of two of the disciples, Simon Peter and Andrew, who presumably lived in Capernaum. James and John also went with them instead of going home. They were now permanent followers of Jesus. It would seem that this house was used as a base while they were in the area.

It is possible that they told Jesus about Simon’s mother-in-law in order to explain the absence of a woman of the house to cope with their needs. This might suggest that Simon was a widower, or that his wife was away from home, and that at the time he relied on his mother-in-law, although 1 Corinthians 9.5 does suggest that Peter’s wife was still alive. Or they may just have mentioned it casually. Whichever way it was Jesus sprang into action. Going into her room He took her hand and raised her from the bed and the fever left her immediately and she was able to see to their needs. It would appear that it was still the Sabbath. Jesus did not see Himself as bound by the Sabbath regulations of the Scribes and Pharisees, except in public when He did not wish to cause unnecessary offence.

That this made a remarkable impression on Simon Peter comes out in that he remembered the incident specifically, and it confirms the idea that Peter’s reminiscences are behind Mark. Why else would such a ‘trivial’ detail be remembered?

1.32-34 ‘And at evening, when the sun set, they brought to him all who were sick, and those who were possessed with devils, and all the town was gathered together at the door. And he healed many who were sick with all kinds of diseases, and cast out many devils, and he did not allow the devils to speak because they knew him.’

This was now the reaction to what was done in the Synagogue. As soon as the Sabbath was over at sunset (the Jewish day began in the evening) the whole town came to the house bringing both sick and demon-possessed people. We should note that the latter are distinguished from each the former. Sickness and demon possession are not directly connected. Note how the incident emphasises the Jewish background. Many wanted to be healed, but until the Sabbath had passed they could not come for healing, for they knew that that would have been looked on by the Pharisees as ‘work’. Thus the people wait for the Sabbath to end before they sprang into action.

We should picture the small fisherman’s house with the large crowds gathered around, bringing with them the sick and needy. Jesus’ reputation was growing. And Jesus healed ‘many’ of them, (that is many of the crowd not many of the sick. He healed all the sick - compare Matthew 4.24; Luke 4.40; 6.19) and cast out many evil spirits. In this way was His power revealed in this small town, and this helps to explain why later He is so scathing of their unbelief (Matthew 11.23). And that was the tragedy. They came to Him only as a physician of the body and not to receive the greater truth. But Jesus considered that it was the acceptance of that truth that was His prime mission (compare chapter 4).

What then was His purpose in so healing when He had really come to proclaim the Kingly Rule of God? The question need hardly be asked. How could One Who was so compassionate fail to respond to the need and faith of the people (compare 8.2)? Indeed He never refused anyone who came to Him in faith. Any shortage of miracles was because unbelieving people did not bring their sick (6.5). And not only were the sick healed, evil spirits were also cast out. The power of Jesus was seen to be greater than that of the unseen world.

We must not think of His miracles as something done to convince people of Who He was. He had in fact no confidence in those who believed because He performed miracles (John 2.23-25). He rather performed them in response to faith. Yet what they did do was reveal the truth about Him. They not only revealed His compassion, for healing was exhausting work as power went out of Him (5.30), but they also revealed that He was from God, for no one could do such things unless God be with Him (John 3.2; Matthew 11.4-5). For as Jesus Himself pointed out later, His ability to cast out evil spirits with a word demonstrated that the Spirit of God was at work through Him, and that the Kingly Rule of God was come (Matthew 12.28; Luke 11.20). Meanwhile the miracles revealed Him to be a Spirit anointed prophet (Luke 4.18-21), and he cited them as a witness to John the Baptiser languishing in prison in order to restore his faith (Matthew 11.2-6).

It should also be noted that while Jesus did not relate disease to evil spirits, He did sometimes relate it to the activity of Satan (Luke 13.16), although there He may only be referring to Satan’s activity indirectly, that is, He might have been saying that sickness is in the world because of sin, and that sin was caused by the activity of Satan. Or that may have been a special case in that possession can result in apparent sickness. Either way Satan was being defeated. So His casting out of evil spirits was a light to faith.

But He can later point out that others also heal and cast out evil spirits, (although, it should be noted, not as comprehensively as He did). For the fact is that some do have strange and unaccountable healing powers which they can exercise to a certain extent, and the efforts of some exorcists were certainly well known (Matthew 7.22; 12.27; Luke 11.19). But their methods were very different from His as the crowds recognised. He alone could heal by a word. And even though He said that false Messiahs would also arise who would seemingly perform signs and wonders (13.22), they would not, and could not, heal all who came to them. So while what He does should certainly be seen as revealing God at work through Him (‘My Father works up to now, and I work’ - John 5.17), He does not point to it as conclusive proof of Who He is, and even specifically silences the evil spirits who would have testified to it. He does not want men to follow Him as a wonder-worker. He wants them to heed His message.

‘And He did not allow the devils to speak because they knew Him.’ At no stage would He allow devils to testify to Him. He did not want to be associated with them in any way. He wanted awareness of Who He was to sink home in men’s hearts from the overall picture He presented, and especially through His teachings, not because of some spectacular statements made by devils which could cause a sensation and easily later be forgotten, and might even be seen as aligning Him with them. Indeed He knew that these could by their acknowledgement of Him prevent the deeper work from taking place. He did not want admiration through the spectacular, but obedience to the Kingly Rule of God based on a true response to His words. So He told the evil spirits to be quiet, and they obeyed Him. A further revelation of His authority.

‘Because they knew Him.’ Mark leaves this unexplained until 3.11, unless we refer it back to verse 24. He wants his readers to be asking the right questions.

Jesus Stresses the Wide Scope of What He Has Come To Do (1.35-39).

The work in which He was engaged would be exhausting as He ministered to the crowds, especially spiritually, and so He was aware of the need to go aside and pray. So He rose very early and went to a lonely place, a desert place, away from the town. And there He prayed. He was well aware that His success was dependent on His relationship with His Father, and the confidence that was maintained by it. But the crowds came back to the house in the morning looking for Him and, the disciples therefore, almost certainly because they were pressed by the crowds, clearly felt that they must bring Jesus to them. They probably thought that He would be glad to hear of their enthusiasm, and felt that the opportunity must not be missed.

But He felt differently. He knew the hearts of such crowds. Thus His reply probably startled them. He had not, He explained, come as a healer, He had come to proclaim the Kingship of God. He must therefore move on, for this is why He was sent. In other words He had come to call men under the Kingly Rule of God, calling them to personal response to God and to live lives of positive obedience to Him in accordance with His new teaching, that is, to live lives of love, compassion and mercy as a light in a dark world (Matthew 5.16).

1.35 ‘And in the morning, a great while before day, he rose up and went out, and departed into a desert place, and there prayed.’

‘In the morning.’ Not necessarily the next morning, although it may be. On that first night He may well have been kept awake all night. We can imagine the excitement, and the time taken with each sick person and their families, and the reluctance of the crowd to leave, and the words which would be spoken. Dispersal would not have been easy and the night would soon go. So by morning the crowds would be exhausted.

‘A great while before day.’ While the house was silent, and the disciples slept on, Jesus aroused Himself, for He knew how necessary it was to maintain His relationship with His Father, and to bring His work before Him. There is a lesson in this for us all.

‘He rose up and went out and departed into a desert place, and there He prayed.’ He sought out a lonely place where He could be away from people. And there He spent time with His Father in prayer. As He constantly emphasises in John’s Gospel (e.g. 5.17), He and His Father work together. While He is ‘the Spirit anointed One’ He also works in dependence on the Father, for He and His Father are one in all that they do.

1.36-37 ‘And Simon and those who were with him went after him, and they found him and say to him, “Everyone is looking for you”.’

The disciples awoke and discovered that He was not there. Then the crowds again gathered and wanted to see Jesus. No doubt many more sick people had been brought. But this was part of the reason why Jesus had gone to a lonely place. He had anticipated what would happen. However, the crowds would urge the disciples to find Jesus. So they ‘went after Him’. They sought for Him. And when they eventually found Him they told Him that He was wanted, and that everyone was looking for Him. There was a certain urgency in their mission. Perhaps they felt He would not want to miss this opportunity to enhance His reputation.

1.38 ‘And he says to them, “Let us go elsewhere into the next towns that I may preach there as well. For this was the reason that I came forth”.’

But Jesus stressed that He was here to preach. He had a message to proclaim. These people have heard the message and therefore He must move on. The Kingly Rule of God has drawn near (1.15) and all must be made aware of it. He does not want healing to take precedence over this. Healing is a necessary work of compassion, but it is not His mission. Preaching is His mission, preaching that will change the hearts of men. Preaching that will heal their souls. And all must have the opportunity of hearing His words.

‘For this was the reason that I came forth.’ This may mean the reason why He left Capernaum and came into the lonely place. But that seems unlikely, for they would no doubt go back to the house to say their farewells and He would want to thank the family for having them. Thus this more probably means that this was why He had come forth from God. Certainly Luke takes it that way, for he expresses it as ‘that is why I was sent’.

1.39 ‘And he went into their synagogues throughout all Galilee, preaching and casting out devils.’

Note that Mark makes no mention of healing here. Jesus has come to establish the Kingly Rule of God and to defeat the Enemy, and this is what He goes about doing (compare 6.7). And the whole of Galilee was made aware of why He was there and what His message was, and that by the Spirit He could cast out evil spirits. They learned that the days of the Enemy were numbered, for God was there. We notice again how ready the Synagogue rulers were to let Him speak.

Some considerable time would now pass as He continued carrying out His ministry. The word was being received and His power and authority was being revealed. People were attending to His words and His fame was spreading. And the Pharisees and the local Scribes who lived in Galilee would certainly, therefore, become interested in what He was doing. They saw themselves as the protectors of orthodoxy. They would certainly come to sound Him out, as we find out in the next chapter. But meanwhile His ministry was being consolidated, even though He is well aware that there are many who are refusing to hear and respond (compare Matthew 11.20-24).

Six Incidents In The Life of Jesus Which Reveal His Unique Power and Authority and Lead to the Pharisees Plotting Against Him (1.40-3.6).

Jesus’ ministry having been established, and the presence of the Kingly Rule of God having been demonstrated by His power to cast out unclean spirits and heal, we are now presented with a series of incidents which reveal more of Who He is. Through them the glory of Jesus and Who He is, is brought out. The subsection commences with the healing of a seriously skin-diseased man. Such a man was an outcast from society and no one would go near him, or expected him to come near them. But attracted by what he had heard the man seeks out this new prophet. He no doubt remembered how another great prophet, Elisha, had helped Naaman so long ago (2 Kings 5), and felt that a new Elisha might be here. Jesus will later use this incident, among others, in order to demonstrate that He is the Coming One (Matthew 11.5).

This is then followed by a series of incidents in which He reveals His authority on earth as the Son of Man to forgive sins (2.1-12), demonstrates that even the outcasts are welcome to come to Him for healing of soul because He is the Healer of men’s souls (2.13-17), calls on all to recognise the joy that there should be because of His coming as the Heavenly Bridegroom in order to establish something totally new (2.18-22), reveals that as the Son of Man He has authority over the Sabbath (2.23-28), and publicly heals the man whose arm is withered on the Sabbath day, revealing that He has come as the Restorer (3.1-6). In all this He was challenging the norms on which Jewish society was based, which were that the ‘unclean’ had to be avoided, forgiveness was the prerogative of God alone, outcasts and sinners were best avoided and had to be ostracised, pious men were to evidence it by fasting and mourning, and the Sabbath was to be honoured according to the letter of the Scribes and Pharisees, with the needs of men taking a very subsidiary place. But Jesus brings out that He is turning everything upside down. He makes clean the unclean with a word, He forgives the unforgiven, He meets up with outcasts and sinners who have demonstrated repentance, He declares that because He is here it is not a time for fasting, and He brings compassion into the interpretation of the Sabbath Law on the grounds that the purpose of the Sabbath is to benefit man, not in order to be a sign of piety. And all this because the old is past and the new has come, and because He has come the introducer of a new age in which the needy are important.

It will be noted in passing that following the incident of the skin-diseased man we have five incidents from the life of Jesus. which all follow a literary a similar pattern, that of commencing with an incident which then leads on to a final saying. These may well have been patterned on a regular presentation of the oral tradition used in the churches which had been provided by Peter or the other Apostles.

Analysis 1.40-3.6.

This whole subsection may be analysed as follows:

  • a Jesus heals a leper with a touch and a word and sends him as a testimony to the priests in Jerusalem (1.40-45).
  • b The healing of a paralytic - the Scribes criticise Jesus for declaring that the man’s sins are forgiven and learn that ‘the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins’ (2.1-12).
  • c The ‘astonishing’ immediate calling of Levi, an outcast public servant, to be a disciple (2.13).
  • d Jesus and His disciples feast in Levi’s house along with many public servants and sinners, and the Pharisees grumble (2.14-16).
  • e Jesus makes clear that He has come as the Healer of those who acknowledge that they are ‘sick’, that is, not of those who claim to be righteous but of those who acknowledge themselves as sinners (2.17).
  • d The disciples of John and the Pharisees fast, and they grumble because Jesus’ disciples do not fast, at which Jesus points out that because He has come as the Bridegroom they should not fast because it is a time of rejoicing, for He is introducing something so totally new and incompatible with the old that fasting would be out of place (2.18-20).
  • c He illustrates the fact that the new ways have come to replace the old (2.21-22).
  • b The Pharisees criticise Jesus’ disciples for eating in the grainfields on the Sabbath and learn that ‘the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath’ (2.23-28).
  • a Jesus heals the man with a withered hand with a word, as a testimony to the Pharisees (3.1-6).

Note that in ‘a’ a sin diseased man is healed, who is a picture of the need of Israel, and in the parallel a man with a withered hand is healed who is also a picture of the need of Israel. The first contains a message to the Jerusalem priesthood, the second a message to the attendant Pharisees, that the Healer and Restorer of men is here. In ‘b’ He reveals Himself as the Son of Man Who forgives sins on earth, and in the parallel as the Son of Man Who is Lord of the Sabbath. In ‘c’ Jesus calls to be a disciple an outcast from Jewish society, and in the parallel points out that He has come to introduce a world with new attitudes. In ‘d’ Jesus and His disciples feast because the new age is here, and in the parallel the disciples of John and the Pharisees fast because they are still in the old age. Centrally Jesus has come as a Physician to make whole those who are spiritually sick.

Jesus Reveals His Power and Authority to Make Clean (1.40-45).

Here Jesus power and authority is revealed in no uncertain fashion. Firstly because He overrides the law of uncleanness. And secondly because He heals the skin diseased man visibly in the sight of all. The incident is also important because it stresses that Jesus faithfully observed the teaching of the Law in commanding the man to fulfil its requirements.

We must not underestimate Jesus’ approach to this disease, nor the lesson that it brings home. To touch such a person was normally to be rendered ritually unclean. A Pharisee would usually take the utmost precautions against even the remotest chance of doing so, and the skin-diseased person himself was seen as having a firm responsibility to ensure that he had no contact with others who were not unclean. And yet Jesus deliberately chose to touch him. He could have healed him at a word, so why then did He touch him? The answer is that it was because it was a gesture of supreme religious authority. By it He was claiming that He could not be rendered unclean by His contact with the skin-diseased man because as the Holy One of God (verse 24) He was the source of all cleanness (the title has prepared for this incident). Rather than He himself being made unclean by the touch, cleanness passed from Him to the skin-diseased man. In any other person the claim would immediately have been dismissed. But what could be said of a case where the disease simply disappeared before their eyes? Here truly was One Who could make clean.

Analysis of 1.40-45.

  • a And there comes to him a skin-diseased man, pleading with him and kneeling down to him, and saying to him, “If you will, you can make me clean” (40).
  • b And being stirred to his very depths he stretched forth his hand, and touched him, and says, “I will, be made clean” (41).
  • c And immediately the skin disease left him and he was made clean (42).
  • b And he sternly charged him, and immediately sent him away, and says to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go your way, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing the things that Moses commanded for a testimony to them” (43-44).
  • a But he went out and began to proclaim the story in detail and to spread abroad the matter in so much that he could no more openly enter into a town, but was outside in desert places. And they came to him from every quarter (45).

Note that in ‘a’ the skin-diseased man approaches Him in his illness, and in the parallel goes out from His presence proclaiming his wholeness. In ‘b’ Jesus speaks the word of cleansing, and in the parallel commands him to go to the priests and do what is necessary to certify his new cleanness. Centrally in ‘c’ the skin disease leaves him and he is made clean.

1.40 ‘And there comes to him a leper, pleading with him and kneeling down to him, and saying to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.”

The disease would be some dreadful creeping skin disease, not necessarily strictly modern leprosy (see Leviticus 13.1-59), although such leprosy (Hansen’s disease) was known in Palestine. All such diseases were so feared that the person was excluded from the community. People would shudder when they saw a skin diseased person, and scurry away. Such a person was forbidden to enter a dwelling place, and had to cry ‘Unclean’ as a warning to others as he walked about (Leviticus 13.45). He was expected to keep away from people generally, and from any religious ritual observance, carrying out his religious obligations by means of others acting for him. He was excluded from the Temple. He was permanently ritually unclean. To touch him was to incur ritual uncleanness which had to be appropriately and lengthily dealt with. So he was excluded by man from society, and seen as religiously unacceptable.

Thus even his approach to Jesus put him in the wrong. He knew that he had no right to make such an approach, indeed was forbidden to do so. But understandably he was desperate. And he had heard wonderful things about this Man. So he approached Him and fell on his knees before Him. This was an acknowledgement that He saw Him as special, probably as ‘a man of God’ filled with the power of God (2 Kings 1.13). No doubt by his action of humility he hoped to escape the rebuke that he deserved. But Mark probably intended his readers to see in his kneeling an indication of Who Jesus really is, the Son of God.

‘If you will, you can make me clean.’ He has a God-given confidence that this Man can do the impossible. He is not expressing doubt about whether Jesus is willing to do it but confidence in what He can do. That is why he has plucked up his courage and come. It is a plea for help. Notice his desire, to be made ‘clean’. This is the thing above all that hurts him so deeply, not so much the dreadful disfigurement, but being unable to approach God’s house and being unable to be in contact with fellow human beings.

1.41-42 ‘And being stirred to his very depths he stretched forth his hand, and touched him, and says, “I will, be made clean”. And immediately the leprosy left him and he was made clean.’

Jesus was stirred to the depths of His being at the man’s plight, evidence of His own deep compassion. ‘Being stirred to His very depths’ represents a strong verb, for ‘being angry’ is found here in a few authorities, including D and Old Latin manuscripts, and Tatian. While it is thus seemingly mainly a Western reading, although being found in Tatian (Syriac), it is so unusual that it may well be original, and have later been softened to ‘moved with compassion’. It is especially significant that Matthew and Luke both leave the verb out, which would surely not be likely if they had read in Mark ‘being moved with compassion’. But whichever is correct it shows that Jesus was deeply stirred. The anger, if such it was, would not be directed at the leper but at the dreadful disease and what it signified in terms of sin and the Evil One.

‘He stretched forth His hand and touched him.’ This was an event that was remembered because of its impact on the watchers. The touching was deliberate. The man himself must have been deeply moved. No one had been willing to touch him for a long, long time, for to touch such a skin-diseased man was to be rendered seriously unclean. This willingness to touch the man clearly distinguished Jesus from the Rabbis, for the Rabbis would go to extraordinary lengths to prevent such a thing happening to them. But who could argue about Him being made unclean when the man was made clean by His touch? No law had been made that took such a situation into account. The reader recognises that the One Who touched Him was beyond being rendered unclean. It was a touch of power and authority, and one of omnipotence. It was the touch of One totally clean, of One Who could remove what was unclean and not Himself be made unclean, of One Who was the source of all cleanness.

Jesus need not have touched him. He could simply have said the word and the man would have been made whole. But He wanted him to know that he was clean, that he was once again touchable and that men would once again touch him and not turn away in loathing and fear.

‘And says, ‘I will, be made clean.’ The response suited the man’s appeal, demonstrating that he would receive exactly what he desired. He would now be ritually clean and acceptable, both in the house of God and in men’s houses, because fully healed.

‘And immediately the skin disease left him and he was made clean.’ What happened was visible to all present. The serious skin disease evaporated before their eyes. It is a reminder that however defiled we may be Jesus can render us acceptable to God at a touch. That this miracle was selected out for detailed treatment in Mark’s condensed account demonstrates how great its impact was seen to be. Nothing more demonstrated the power and glory of Jesus than this incident, for it revealed that Jesus could make a man, even an outcast, totally clean, however dreadful his condition. It was a reminder of the words of God in Ezekiel 36.25-26 when He had spoken of making His people clean. And the One Who would now do this was present.

1.43-44 ‘And he sternly charged him, and immediately sent him away, and says to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go your way, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing the things that Moses commanded for a testimony to them”.’

‘And He sternly charged him --.’ The verb is another word which can indicate anger (so used in Mark 14.5, also externally and in LXX), but note how it is used in Matthew 9.30 in a similar way to here. Jesus is clearly powerfully disturbed by the incident. Compare John 11.38 where He has the same feeling about the death of Lazarus. As suggested above, if there was anger it must have been because of what He saw as lying behind the appalling disease. It was because He saw it as evidence of the consequences of sin, and of the Enemy who had dragged man into it. But more probably the verb simply refers to the severity with which He ‘charged him’ because He knew what he consequences might be.

‘And immediately sent him away.’ The haste with which He sent him away (the verb can be strong - ‘thrust him away’, but here simply indicates urgency) demonstrated that He was aware of the problems that the incident could cause. He realised what the consequences could be, and that it could bring crowds of sensation seekers to see Him. The more dreadful the disease the more the impact of the healing in this way.

‘See that you say nothing to any man.’ He does not want sensation seekers. They can only hinder His ministry. That this is His thought is brought out by the next verse. For the very thing that He was trying to guard against id depicted as happening.

‘But go your way, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing the things that Moses commanded for a testimony to them.’ A man who claimed to be healed of a disfiguring skin disease had to go and show himself to the priests in Jerusalem and then offer the appropriate sacrifices. Once he had been examined and declared free of the disease, two birds were taken, and one was killed over running water. Then cedar, scarlet and hyssop, with the living bird, were dipped in the blood of the dead bird and he was sprinkled with the blood seven times and pronounced clean. Then the live bird was allowed to go free, after which the man washed himself and his clothes, and shaved himself.

Seven days later he was re-examined. He then had to shave his head, hair, beard and eyebrows, and bring an offering of two male lambs without blemish and one ewe lamb (less for a poor person), with three tenths parts of fine flour for a meal offering, mingled with oil, and one log of oil. The priest then offered one he-lamb as a guilt offering, together with the log of oil , and waved them as a wave offering before the Lord to make atonement for him. The other two were offered as a sin offering and a burnt offering. The restored person was then touched on the tip of the right ear, the right thumb and the right great toe with blood from the guilt offering and, after the oil had been sprinkled seven times before the Lord, with oil. The remainder of the oil was then put on his head. Thus was atonement made for him. Then he was finally examined and, if he was clear of the disease, was given a certificate that he was clean and allowed to go. See for all this Leviticus 14.

Jesus told the man that he must fulfil what was required. Indeed it was important, for no one would have accepted him as clean otherwise. He wanted him to disappear quickly from the scene and go to Jerusalem.

This sending of him to Jerusalem reminds us that Jesus was ever faithful to the requirements of the Law of Moses. And He must also usually have followed Pharisaic ritual rules when He felt it necessary, for although his disciples are sometimes pulled up for ‘falling short’ (2.23-24; 7.5), we rarely find the Pharisees accusing Jesus of the same. So although He defended His disciples it is clear that He Himself went beyond what He believed necessary so as not to cause offence. It is not holy to be awkward except when an important principle is at stake.

‘For a testimony to them.’ This probably meant that the ritual the man went through would be a testimony to priest and people of his being clean (rather than, as some have suggested, as testimony that Jesus observed the Law, or as a testimony of what Jesus had accomplished, or as a testimony against them at the final judgment because of their unbelief after what Jesus had done). On the other hand its use elsewhere in Mark always indicates conveying a strong message. See 6.11; 13.9. Thus it may suggest that Jesus did want the priest to recognise that the One Who could make clean was among them.

1.45 ‘But he went out and began to proclaim the story in detail and to spread abroad the matter (Greek: logos) in so much that he could no more openly enter into a town, but was outside in desert places. And they came to him from every quarter.’

That the first part of this sentence refers to the man and not to Jesus is evidenced by the contrast with the previous verse. The second part, of course, refers to Jesus.

‘He went out.’ This whole incident must have taken place over a period of time for we must assume that first of all he did what he was told and went to the priests for a certificate of cleansing, which would take a minimum of seven days in addition to travelling time. Indeed had he not done so no one would have listened to him, for they would have seen him as still unclean. But having obtained his certificate he then went and spread abroad what had happened to him instead of doing what Jesus had asked him to. Possibly he thought that the silence enjoined was only until he had received his certificate of cleansing. Or it may just be that he was so amazed and so grateful that he could not keep quiet.

But in doing so he did Jesus a bad turn, for the result was that huge crowds who were coming for the wrong purpose gathered to see Jesus, with the result that for a time He was squeezed out of the towns and had to remain in desert places. But even this action accomplished little, for everyone flocked to see Him wherever He was. They came to Him from all directions.

There has been no mention in this whole passage of Isaiah 61.1-2, but in Luke 4.18-19 Jesus early in His ministry certainly cites those verses of Himself, and they equally certainly refer to what we find here in Mark, for He is anointed with the Spirit (1.10-12), He proclaims the Good News (1.15), He releases captives (1.26), and He offers freedom to those who were bruised (1.42). Mark may well therefore have had Isaiah 61.1-2 in mind. Isaiah then goes on to speak of the coming of the acceptable year of the Lord which is the thought that lies behind chapter 2.

The Son of Man Has the Power to Forgive Sins (2.1-12).

The idea of the authority of Jesus continues. Having been revealed as the drencher in the Holy Spirit, God’s beloved and Spirit anointed Son, the proclaimer of the Kingly Rule of God, the authoritative teacher, the exorcist of evil spirits by a word of command, the healer of all diseases, and the cleanser of the skin diseased, possessing an authority that ignores uncleanness, He is now revealed as the One Who has authoritative power on earth to forgive sins. And in this incident we also have the first indication of the opposition that will finally result in His death. His authority is now coming in conflict with other who claim to speak with authority, although as we have been told, in their case it is a second hand authority (1.22).

Analysis of 2.1-12.

  • a And when He entered again into Capernaum after some days the news went round that He was in the house, and many were gathered together so that there was no longer room for them, no, not even about the door. And He spoke the word to them (1-2).
  • b And they come, bringing to Him a man sick of paralysis, carried by four men. And when they could not come near to Him because of the crowd, they uncovered the roof where He was, and when they had broken it up they let down the mattress on which the paralysed man lay (3-4).
  • c And Jesus, seeing their faith, says to the paralysed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (5).
  • d But there were certain of the scribes sitting their and reasoning in their hearts. “Why does this man speak like this? He is blaspheming. Who can forgive sins but one, even God?” (6-7).
  • e And immediately Jesus, perceiving in His spirit that they so reasoned within themselves, says to them, “Why do you reason these things in your hearts?” (8).
  • d “Which is easier? To say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Arise take up your bed and walk’?” (9).
  • c “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins,” he says to the paralytic, “I say to you, arise. Take up your bed and go to your house” (10-11).
  • b And he arose, and immediately took up the mattress and went out in front of them all (12a)
  • a With the result that they were all amazed and glorified God saying, “We have never seen anything like this” (12b).

Note that in ‘a’ the crowds gather to receive the word through both preaching and healing, and in the parallel they are all amazed at what they have witnessed of both. In ‘b’ the paralytic is brought to Jesus on his mattress, and in the parallel he arises, takes up the same mattress and walks out. In ‘c’ Jesus declares that the man’s sins are forgiven, and in the parallel He specifically evidences the fact by calling on the man to rise and walk. In ‘d’ the scribes question His right to forgive sins and in the parallel Jesus questions them concerning whether it is easier to declare forgiveness or to speak the word which heals. Centrally in ‘e’ Jesus questions the genuineness of the thinking of the Scribes (teachers of the Law).

2.1-2 ‘And when he entered again into Capernaum after some days the news went round about him that (literally ‘ he was heard that --’) he was in the house, and many were gathered together so that there was no longer room for them, no, not even about the door. And he spoke the word to them.’

After a period of ministry around the towns of Galilee Jesus went back to Peter’s home for a rest. But the news was soon passed around that He had come and was in ‘the house’ which was their temporary headquarters in Galilee. The result was that the crowds gathered, and they pressed in on the house so that there was not even space around the door. The eyewitness remembers the scene clearly. It would seem that normally they would expect the crowds to leave a decent space by the door.

The door would be open, as it was daytime, and in view of what follows we can presume that Jesus was speaking to the crowds from within the house (compare how He later uses a boat in order to prevent being hemmed in by the crowds).

‘And he spoke the word to them.’ Mark (or his source) wants us to recognise that this was His purpose in coming, so that the people might hear ‘the word’ that He had brought to them from God. The sower sows the word.

The end result of all this was that when four men came bringing a paralysed man on a mattress they could not approach the door and get him to Jesus.

2.3-4 ‘And they come, bringing to him a man sick of paralysis, carried by four men. And when they could not come near to him because of the crowd, they uncovered the roof where he was, and when they had broken it up they let down the mattress on which the paralysed man lay.’

When the four men saw that they could not approach Jesus they were not to be defeated, for they were confident that Jesus could and would help them. So when they saw that the great crowd prevented any approach to the house they went up the stone steps on the outside of the back wall of the house which would lead up to the roof, taking the man with them. (Further reminiscence of the eyewitness). It probably took some manoeuvring for they would not want to spill the man out of the mattress, but seemingly they achieved it successfully. Then they broke open the roof of the house and lowered the man down.

This would be a typical small town house. It would probably be a one storey house and would have stone steps round the back which gave access to the roof, which would be flat. This flat roof would have a balustrade round it as required by the Law (Deuteronomy 22.8). It was a place where those who lived in the house could go for comparative quiet and privacy. The roof would be made of beams and rafters set slightly apart, and covered with either mud or tiles. In the case of a mud roof it would be covered with matting, brushwood, branches and twigs, followed by a final covering of mud which would then be trodden hard. The result was a waterproof roof, but not one able to thwart the attempts of four determined men to break it open, and as long as the beams were not harmed it would be easy and cheap to repair again. On the other hand Luke mentions ‘tiles’ so that if this is taken literally this particular house would have a tiled roof, a type certainly known by New Testament times. In that case breaking through the roof would simply involve the removal of the tiles.

‘Mattress.’ The word used by Mark indicates a poor man’s bedding.

2.5 ‘And Jesus, seeing their faith, says to the paralysed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven”.’

Jesus was clearly moved by the faith and persistence of these five men (including the paralytic). He ‘saw their faith’. But then He did the unexpected, He said to the man, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ This was in the perfect passive indicative and could mean ‘have been and therefore are forgiven.’. But some see it as an aoristic perfect and as thus meaning ‘are this moment forgiven’. Both interpretations are possible. Either way forgiveness was being declared, and we know from many examples that when Jesus used the passive in this way He was intending God to be seen as the subject.

But why did He speak like this when the man had come for healing? It may puzzle us but no Jew of that time would have asked such a question. They would have agreed that his condition must connect with some sin, either his or his parents (compare John 9.2), and that forgiveness of that sin could well relate to any attempt to heal. Jesus, however, did not think like that. Clearly as He looked at the man, with his eager gaze fixed on Him, possibly clouded by the fear that he was not worthy, He knew something specific about this man which led Him to say it.

It is quite possible that the paralysis had actually resulted from some deep sin. Cases are known where people have become paralysed as a result of some traumatic event in their lives. That cannot be ruled out. But it is more likely that Jesus knew of his private struggle with sin and knew that he had prayed, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’, and yet was still in doubt. But whatever the situation Jesus’ words suggest that He knew that the greatest need of this man was an assurance of forgiveness. His very words seem to suggest that He knew that this man had repented and that God had forgiven him. So He gives him that assurance.

‘Son.’ The word is strictly ‘child’. This may well mean he was a very young man which adds more poignancy to the situation.

2.6-7 ‘But there were certain of the scribes sitting their and reasoning in their hearts. “Why does this man speak like this? He is blaspheming. Who can forgive sins but one, even God?”.’

In the crowd gathered around the house were some Scribes (teachers and interpreters of the Law). As important people they appear to have been given a place at the front, for they heard what Jesus said to the man. These were the local Scribes, doctors and teachers of the Law (see Luke 5.17), rather than those who later came down from Jerusalem. Being local they were almost certainly Pharisees. (Some Scribes in Jerusalem were Sadducees). They were looked to by the people to interpret the Law and did so on the basis of oral tradition passed down among them, much of which was the result of scribal decisions in the past. There would appear to have been three types of such oral tradition: (a) some oral laws which were claimed as having come from Moses as given by the great lawgiver in addition to the written laws; (b) decisions of various judges which became precedents in judicial matters; and (c) interpretations of great teachers (rabbis) which came to be prized with the same reverence accorded to the Old Testament Scriptures. In order to become Scribes they had to become learned in these oral traditions. They were called ‘the tradition of the Elders’. They looked on themselves, and were generally looked on by the people, as the guardians of the Law. They had almost certainly come to sound out this new teacher so as to make a judgment on Him.

‘Reasoning in their hearts.’ They were weighing up His words and coming to their ‘considered’ judgment on them. They had not come to learn but to act as critics. Thus when they heard His words to the paralysed man their ears pricked up, and they probably whispered quietly among themselves. ‘How dare He speak like this?’ In their eyes it was pure blasphemy. For surely only God could forgive sins. Had they listened more reasonably they might have recognised that He had not quite said what they were insinuating. Like Nathan of old He had only assured the man of God’s forgiveness (2 Samuel 12.13). But they were not thinking sympathetically.

‘He is blaspheming.’ That is, He is taking over God’s prerogative and therefore acting against God. Indeed almost making Himself out to be the equal of God. Their words remind us how easy it is to be so set in our thoughts that we can only think in one way. They had not come there in order to think fairly about what Jesus was saying, or what He was doing. They had come to measure it by their yardstick. And in that light there could be only one conclusion. (And by that yardstick even a Messiah coming in terms of their own expectations would have been a blasphemer. The theory of a Messiah was fine, but the actuality was not, and never would be, acceptable to them unless He handed over all religious aspects to them. A free thinking Messiah would not have been allowable).

‘Who can forgive sins but One. Even God?’ They were, of course, correct. From the point of view of being forgiven in the sight of God (which was what Jesus had meant) it was only God Who could do it. But Jesus had actually spoken ambiguously. They could have seen it as meaning simply, ‘God has forgiven you’ as a word of comfort and assurance, but they saw it as meaning ‘I have bestowed on you God’s forgiveness’. In their view that went along with His outrageous religious attitude. It was, however, open to men either to see Him as a declarer of forgiveness (as with Nathan in 2 Samuel 12.13) or as One Who shared the prerogative of God. The Scribes, in fact, actually came to the right conclusion but because of their prejudice were not willing to yield to the truth.

2.8-9 ‘And immediately Jesus, perceiving in His spirit that they so reasoned within themselves, says to them, “Why do you reason these things in your hearts? Which is easier? To say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Arise take up your bed and walk’?’

Jesus gathered what they were thinking and whispering (for Jesus’ ability to discern thoughts compare 12.15; John 2.24). What a contrast there was between the thoughts of the paralysed man and these scribes. Jesus had known what the paralysed man had been thinking, his faith, and his uncertainty about his worthiness. Now He knew what these men were thinking, their lack of faith, and their total confidence in their own worthiness. And so He challenged them. They had been following Him around, they had seen some of His miracles. Well, which was easiest, to declare a man’s sins forgiven or to heal him and make him walk? Let them think about that. Why was it that they had not seen the truth about Him by what He was doing?

They were caught in the net of their own teaching. They believed that illness and disease was the consequence of sin. So for someone to be healed meant that their sin had been dealt with. The healing demonstrated forgiveness. Thus the fact that He healed should have suggested to them that He had the power to determine whether God had forgiven a man.

Besides, did they not recognise that this was to be the proof positive that the Kingship of God had come? Isaiah 53.5-6 made clear that One was coming on Whom all their iniquities would be laid, because He bore them on their behalf. Did that not mean that He would bring forgiveness? Indeed forgiveness was the basis of the salvation that Isaiah saw God as bringing (Isaiah 43.25; 44.22; 54.8). Jeremiah 31.34 made clear that when the Kingship of God came men’s sins would be freely forgiven. And Micah declared that in those days God would turn and have compassion on them, pardoning sin and passing by transgression, delighting in mercy (7.18-19). For then would be opened to the house of David a fountain for sin and uncleanness (Zechariah 13.1).

So if the Kingly Rule of God was drawing near they should have recognised from the Scriptures that the One Who brought it would also bring forgiveness. And as well as forgiveness He would bring healing. The eyes of the blind would be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped and the lame would leap like a hart (Isaiah 29.18; 35.4-6; 61.1-2). Thus when the Coming One came forgiveness and healing would go together. They had already seen the latter constantly in His ministry. Did they not see then that that meant that the Kingly Rule of God with its consequences of forgiveness had come? That the acceptable year of the Lord was now here. Yet the fact was that they would not concede the point because they were not willing to face the consequences. They did not want the hearers in the crowd to think that it meant that this man Jesus had been justified in declaring the man’s sins forgiven. So they sat there silent, but unforgiving.

2.10-11 “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins,” he says to the paralytic, “I say to you, arise. Take up your bed and go to your house.” ’

This is a central verse of the passage for it contains the essential message that this account is all about. The sudden switch in subject in the middle of the verse should be noted. It has caused some to see the original account as having been interfered with in one way or the other. But it is difficult to see how Mark could have got over his point so personally and yet so succintly, without using this method. It is in fact dramatic. Jesus makes His solemn declaration to the Scribes and then instantly speaks to the man, all in one breath, closely connecting the two. The repetition of ‘He says to the paralytic,’ is not a simple repetition but Mark’s deliberate contrast of what He says in verse 5 with what He says in verse 10. The repetition draws attention to the contrast. The point is brought home. The purity of the Greek takes second place.

His new claim is startling. Now He has moved from ambiguity to clarity. ‘So that you may know that the Son of Man has authoritative power on earth to forgive sins.’ He is claiming that He has the special authority to forgive sins! ‘Forgive’ is in the present infinitive, ‘to go on forgiving sins’ as a personal activity. And we notice that the words are spoken directly to the Rabbis. It is they whose thoughts He is challenging.

We cannot hide from the fact here that Jesus has deliberately ‘provoked’ this incident. In it we come to a high point in His claim to authority. He has revealed His authority in the calling if His disciples. He has revealed His authority in His teaching. He has revealed His authority in casting out evil spirits. And He has even more underlined His authority it touching a man who was unclean, and healing him instead of being made unclean Himself. But now He is lifting His claim to authority to a higher plain, to the plain of divine forgiveness

But we note first the title under which He claims the right to forgive sins. He does so as ‘the Son of Man’. Some have tried to make this mean simply ‘man’ on the basis of the Aramaic, but Mark was an Aramaic speaker and yet he translated it as ‘the Son of Man’, treating it as a title and making an unambiguous connection with the ideas that lie behind that term. It is significant that in the Gospels the term is only ever used on the lips of Jesus (Mark 8.31; Luke 24.7; and John 12.34 are not really exceptions for they are referring to what Jesus actually said), and in the New Testament only ever referred to Jesus. Thus there are no good grounds for denying these words to Jesus (some have tried to suggest that they are Mark’s explanation to his readers, as though ‘you’ was addressed to the readers, but this is not the style of the Gospels).

He had begun to develop the term ‘Son of Man’ from the moment of His baptism. His first use of it was to Nathaniel at his call following Jesus’ baptism, where He spoke of angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man (John 1.51). He then used it to Nicodemus with clear heavenly connections, ‘No man has ascended into Heaven but He Who descended out of Heaven, even the Son of Man’ (John 3.13). Thus according to John the Son of Man is closely connected with Heaven and has His source in Heaven right from the beginning.

We may well ask, Why does Jesus portray Himself as the ‘Son of Man’?

The title Christ (Messiah) had become connected with the idea of a revolutionary leader who would rally the people against the Romans, but this was not how Jesus wanted people to see Him. That was why, once His disciples had recognised Him for what He was, as ‘the Christ’, He re-educated them into recognising what being ‘the Christ’ involved in terms of ‘the Son of Man’ (8.29-31). Once He had been crucified His Messiahship could be openly declared (Acts 2.36), but before that it was better veiled. Thus once the term ‘Christ’ could be used openly after the resurrection, the term ‘Son of Man’ fell into disuse following its final use (and its only use apart from on the lips of Jesus) by Stephen in Acts 7.56 of ‘the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’, where it again signified a triumphant figure in glory. Apart, that is, from in the Book of Revelation, where it is used of the glorious heavenly figure that John meets on ‘the Lord’s Day’ (1.10-20), and of the fearsome figure who initiates the judgment in Revelation 14.14-16. It is thus not used in any of the New Testament letters.

The phrase Son of Man could hold a variety of meanings:

  • In the Old Testament it regularly parallels ‘man’ as a synonym (e.g. Psalm 8.4). Thus by it Jesus was holding Himself out as being true man.
  • It is used by God to Ezekiel stressing that he, Ezekiel, is but a man, indicating his humble place when faced with God.
  • It is used in Daniel 7.13 of Israel and its King in contrast to the nation Beasts and their kings, and of one who comes as a representative of Israel before God’s throne to receive universal power.
  • It is used, in apocalyptic literature, of Enoch in a heavenly ministry, spoken to as “you, son of man”.
  • Rabbinic literature also later identified the son of man in Daniel 7.13 with the Messiah.

The phrase, therefore, stressed both humiliation and glory, and was not open to being politically manipulated, while at the same time bringing out Jesus’ role as the representative of mankind. It was precisely because as Man He was the mediator between God and men (1 Timothy 2.5) that He could pronounce the forgiveness of sins.

The passage in Daniel deserves special mention in this regard. There Israel as God’s people are compared with the nations round about who are described as ‘beasts’ and as behaving in beastly fashion. Israel alone (seen in its ideal form as obedient to God) is truly human ‘like a son of man’, for when true to God His people behave like moral human beings. Because of this the people of God (and by inference their ruler) are subjected to suffering under the beasts (see especially Daniel 7.25) until the end of the age. Then comes ‘one like to a son of man’ with the clouds of Heaven to the throne of God, to receive power and glory and universal rule (7.13). He is the representative of ‘the people of the saints of the Most High’ (7.27). While the son of man is certainly true Israel, the very vivid portrayal in Daniel requires that they approach God in the form of a representative, their king, in the same way as the beasts represented the nations and their kings.

So we may sum up by saying that the phrase ‘Son of Man’ in Daniel represents One who suffers in weakness at the hands of brutish man, followed by a triumphant entry into the presence of God to receive power and glory. Jesus Who saw Himself as the Servant of Yahweh of Isaiah used the title as summing up Israel in Himself as the Suffering Servant.

The Special Use of Son of Man in Mark

The Synoptic Gospels in general reveal Jesus as using the title in all kinds of situations. In them (apart from in Mark) there is the connection to the Son of Man as signifying primarily a true human, which is as common in them as its use of the heavenly Son of Man, but that is not so in Mark. Mark deliberately selects sayings of Jesus which bring out what to him is the essence of Jesus’ claim to be the ‘Son of Man’ and connect with his own aim to present the Son of God.

  • ‘The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ (2.10) (i.e. on earth as well as in Heaven).
  • ‘The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath’ (2.28). He has authority to pronounce on God’s ordinances.
  • ‘It is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer - and rise again’ (8.31; 9.12; 9.31: 10.33; 14.21) - because the son of man in Daniel suffers and then rises to the throne of God, and because only so can He give His life as a ransom for many. Notice the constant repetition of these ideas throughout. This is His destiny and is now His constant theme and the disciples must be made to understand the two sides that there are to it.
  • The Son of Man will give His life a ransom for many (10.45).
  • The Son of Man will take His seat at the right hand of God and will come on the clouds of heaven, in the glory of the Father, with the holy angels (8.38; 14.62). (This directly links Jesus with Daniel 7.13).

So to those who would see it Jesus, by this title, was declaring Himself to be here with heavenly authority, for the purpose of suffering and rising again, so that He may ransom men for Himself, with the purpose of then receiving power and authority, and finally coming in the glory of the Father.

Here in Mark 2.10 Jesus represents Himself as the Son of Man Who has authority on earth to forgive sins. This was clearly a claim to special authority and power and by implication connected Him equally with Heaven (the emphasis on ‘on earth’ indicates a contrast with Heaven), and with earth, the latter as the place to which He had come and where He now exercised His heavenly authority. It made clear that as a result of His coming forgiveness was now here to be received through Him while on earth. Yet its usage in the third person left the Rabbis and the disciples to consider who exactly He was speaking about.

‘Power (authority) on earth to forgive sins.’ This is clear and unambiguous. It is a claim that this ‘Son of Man’ can act directly in the forgiveness of sins while on earth. And as the Rabbis had so clearly indicated, this demonstrated His divine nature, which is what Mark wants to bring out. To others He would give the authority to declare sins forgiven (‘he whose sins you shall forgive, shall have been forgiven’ - John 20.23), but He alone could actually and personally, as the Judge and Redeemer in union with His Father, forgive sins.

‘So that you may know --.’ His act of healing will demonstrate that what He has said is not blasphemy. If He were a blasphemer God would not hear Him, especially in the context of His blasphemy. Thus if the man really is healed it can only demonstrate that God is pleased with what He has said, and that He is therefore His ‘beloved Son in Whom He is well pleased’ (1.11), and does have this power that He has claimed.

‘He says to the paralytic, “I say to you, arise. Take up your mattress and go to your house.” ’ Jesus then turned to the paralytic and bid him stand up, pick up his mattress and go home. And to the amazement of all he did so.

2.12 ‘And he arose, and immediately took up the mattress and went out in front of them all, with the result that they were all amazed and glorified God saying, “We have never seen anything like this”.’

This was Jesus’ vindication. The man was immediately healed in front of everyone and demonstrated it by picking up his mattress and going out in full sight of all who were there. To the unprejudiced mind this could only prove that Jesus was clearly a true ‘man of God’. And that was how the crowds saw it, for they were amazed and gave glory to God. The words of Jesus had passed most of them by but the miracle was something to talk about, and to give praise about. They were not just spectacle seekers. And they had seen something beyond anything they had previously witnessed. But the Rabbis undoubtedly went out feeling very grim and unhappy. They should have been glorifying God (they could accuse others of not doing so - John 9.24) but they were too taken up with their theological aversion to what Jesus had said to do so. They just would not see the truth.

The Divine Physician Has Come to Make Men Whole (2.13-17).

The second great statement of this chapter is about the Great Physician, and is introduced by the call of Levi (Matthew). But we are not, of course, just to concentrate on the statement alone for the context is important, and indeed leads up to the statement. The call of four local fishermen to be disciples must have caused some surprise, but the call of a hated tax-collector and outcast must have been seen as staggering. It would have raised shocked horror in many Jewish hearts. And yet it exemplified fully what Jesus had come to do and be.

Analysis of 2.13-17.

  • a And He went out again by the sea side, and the whole crowd were resorting to Him and He was teaching them (13).
  • b And as He passed by He saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the place where tolls were collected, and He says to him, “Follow me.” And he arose and followed Him (14).
  • c And it happened that He was sitting eating food in his house, and many tax collectors and sinners sat down with Jesus and His disciples (15a).
  • d For there were many and they followed Him (15b).
  • c And the Scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax collectors, said to His disciples, “He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners” (16).
  • b And when Jesus heard it, He says to them, “Those who are whole do not need a medical doctor, only those who are ill” (17a).
  • a “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners”. (17b).

Note that in ‘a’ He was teaching the crowds, while in the parallel we have the essence of what He was teaching them. In ‘b’ we have the description of one whom He calls, and in the parallel how He sums him up. In ‘c’ we find Jesus eating food with tax collectors and sinners, and in the parallel the judgment of the Scribes on it. Centrally in ‘d’ we have the important fact that many tax collectors and ‘sinners’ followed Him.

2.13 ‘And he went out again by the sea side, and the whole crowd were resorting to him and he was teaching them.’

Once again Mark draws our attention to Jesus’ popularity with the ordinary people. His growing outward success is one of his themes. And he does not fail to draw our attention to the fact that Jesus preaching ministry went on, for this was why He was sent (1.38). The tenses indicate that the people were constantly coming, and that He was constantly teaching them. It was an ongoing process.

The introduction is general. There is no direct connection with the previous incident, nor the next. The verse is slipped in simply to emphasise what has been said above, that Jesus’ popularity with the common people is growing apace.

2.14 ‘And as he passed by he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the place where tolls were collected, and he says to him, “Follow me.” And he arose and followed him.’

This is a simple sentence and yet it contains a multitude of significance. Levi was a man who served the hated ruler Herod Antipas as a local official collecting tolls on his behalf from those who passed along that route, possibly the trade route from Damascus, or perhaps covering imports by sea. For Capernaum was basically a frontier town between the territory of Herod and that of Philip and near the sea shore. Such people were despised. They were considered to be betrayers of the people, for they were dishonest and lined their pockets by mean of extra ‘taxes’ at everyone’s expense. And with their constant contact with Gentiles and sinners they were seen as continually ritually unclean. Overall they were seen as rather unpleasant, and certainly irreligious, people.

Thus when Jesus approached Levi, and called him to follow Him as a disciple, eyes must have been raised. Indeed they must have wondered what Jesus thought He was doing. But Jesus clearly knew the man in one way or another, and had equally clearly been impressed with him. To Him what the man had been was unimportant. What mattered was what he was willing to become. The rich young ruler was a man admired by his contemporaries, but he was not willing to do what Levi did, leave his riches and follow Jesus. And Jesus knew His man.

We are then told simply that Levi arose and followed Him. Given the choice between the service of Herod Antipas and growing riches, and the service of Jesus and poverty, he did not hesitate. He followed the authority of the greater King, the Servant of God. Here was living proof of the presence of God’s powerful reign present in Jesus. That is Mark’s implication. And his action was total. Unlike the others there was no way he could ever go back to his job, and he knew that from the beginning. In one move he risked everything. From Matthew 9.9 we know that he was also called Matthew, possibly a name he received on following Jesus, for in 3.18 Mark himself calls him Matthew. And he used his skills and became the great writer who recorded so much of the teaching of Jesus.

We need not think that this was the first time that they had met. Levi had probably been in the crowds following Jesus and may well have talked with Him and discussed his problems and his searching after truth. Thus Jesus had recognised in him one who was suitable to be an Apostle.

2.15 ‘And it happened that he was sitting eating food in his house, and many tax collectors and sinners sat down with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many and they followed him.’

As a result Levi invited Jesus and his followers to his home. Among these followers were many tax collectors and sinners who had heard Jesus preaching and had in one way or another responded. ‘Sinners’ was a general term that could refer to those Jews who failed to live in accordance with the dictates of the Pharisees, but could also include those who were involved in deeper sin. Some were simply those who were not careful about avoiding ritual defilement, but others were those who were guilty of grave sins such as adultery or theft (although not necessarily present at Levi’s gathering). All were lumped together by the Pharisees. To share meals with such was looked on by the Pharisees as abhorrent. Such people did not keep themselves ritually clean. Thus Jesus would be seen as courting the possibility of defilement and as mixing with unfit people. We should note that these people were ‘followers’. Jesus was not going ‘partying’. He knew that their hearts were moved and that they were seeking Him.

It would not be true to say that the Pharisees would never welcome such a person. If they repented on their own volition and made the necessary sacrifices and began to maintain the necessary regulations, becoming ‘clean’ and submitting to the authority of the Scribes, they would finally after a considerable period of probation be accepted, but the route was a difficult one and no one took the trouble to seek such people out. The difference with Jesus was that He sought them out and welcomed them immediately. The Pharisees looked at the outward appearance, Jesus considered the sinner’s need and looked at the heart.

‘For there were many and they followed him.’ We must not miss the significance of these important words. These were not just tax collectors and sinners who had come together for a good time, and were joined in it by Jesus. These were tax collectors and sinners who had begun genuinely to ‘follow’ Jesus, that is, to look to Him and respond to His words. Their hearts had been touched and they were there to learn from Him. And there were many of them. Jesus’ influence was widespread even over such as these.

2.16 ‘And the Scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with the sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners”.’

The sight of Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners offended the Scribes. They were still following Him about in order to observe Him, still upset because of what He had previously said. Now they felt that they had indeed been justified in their views and criticism. He was mixing with the wrong kind of people and showing a lack of concern for ritual cleanliness. Eating with such people was against all that they believed in.

Let us first be fair to them. There was some truth in their attitude that mixing with riffraff and immoral people was not advisable. Such company could lead men into sin and worse. That is common sense. And they had made great efforts to lift themselves above the average man, and did not want to be in danger of being dragged down. But where they failed was in their self-satisfaction and in their failure to recognise the difference between general partying on the one hand, and mixing with such people when they were genuinely seeking spiritual help on the other. Their view was that such people must sort themselves out first, and then acceptance of them could be considered. But until then they must be avoided.

We note that they did not approach Him directly. Possibly they feared His forthright response. Even feared that somehow He might show them up. He seemed so good at doing that. But they could not withhold their condemnation. So they muttered to His disciples. Possibly they hoped to woo them from One Who was so clearly in the wrong.

We note also that these were ‘Scribes of the Pharisees’ (there were also Scribes of the Sadducees and more independent Scribes). And they were almost certainly comparatively local (the Jerusalem Scribes would be called in later - 3.22). They were the local legal experts, well versed in the teachings of the Elders, that oral law that they so prized, which had taken the Law of Moses and added to it hundreds of regulations to ensure that it was properly kept. And they were Pharisees.

There were only about six to seven thousand Pharisees in all. They were generally ‘good living’ men, but often self-righteous, and strove to please God by keeping the hundreds of regulations laid down by their Scribes. By this response to the covenant they hoped to achieve eternal life. They not only accepted the Law of Moses as Scripture, but also the prophets. And they believed in the resurrection from the dead.

The people in general looked up to them and listened to and respected them and their teaching. They taught in the Synagogues and were regularly consulted, especially their Scribes. But as such people will, many of them had begun to feel themselves superior to everyone else. Many of them overlooked the fact that true goodness consists in the attitude of heart and instead concentrated on ‘doing the right thing’, a large part of which consisted of ritual acts such as various washings at different times of the day, careful tithing, and observance to the letter of the traditions of the Elders which were often clever ways of avoiding the force of the Law, ‘making the word of God void through their tradition’ (7.13). Thus their sense of superiority increased, and the result was that many became hypocritical. They ignored justice and mercy and the central demands of the Law and concentrated on making great demands on people in lesser matters, demands which they could not meet satisfactorily themselves. They often became ultra-critical, separatist and intolerant. And it was of this kind that the opposition to Jesus was mainly made up.

So it was such men who criticised Jesus, men who thought they were on the right track, possibly even almost ‘there’, and who were offended that He did not fully agree with them. That He did observe their general teaching comes out in that they never criticised Him personally for actually breaking their ritual requirements, but what they objected to was the extreme claims that He seemed to be making without their support, and His readiness to proclaim repentance and forgiveness to ordinary people without insisting on all the legal requirements. And now He had added this, that He mixed with and ate with recognised sinners and despised tax collectors. He was keeping bad company.

2.17 ‘And when Jesus heard it, he says to them, “Those who are whole do not need a medical doctor, only those who are ill. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners”.’

When Jesus heard the criticism He went right to the heart of the matter. He told them that He had come to reach sinners wherever they may be found and bring them to repentance. That He was like a doctor who seeks out the sick so as to help them. He was not saying that there actually were some who were so righteous that they did not need His teaching, only that there were some who thought that they were. But rather He was pointing out that His words were for those who had a conscious need, who were aware that they were sick. And those who acknowledged that need would come to Him and find wholeness. It was open to all, including the Pharisees once they were willing to acknowledge their basic need. But in order to fulfil this task He was ready to receive all who would come and to move among them in their sickness. Indeed for the doctor to spurn the sick would be ridiculous.

Notice the ‘I’ (included in the verb). Quietly and firmly He was contrasting Himself with the Pharisees and indeed with all men. And as such He had especially ‘come’. Thus for those who would see it His words went deeper than is at first apparent, for by putting Himself forward as the physician of the people He was aligning Himself with God. In Jeremiah 30.17 it was God Who says, “I will restore health to you and will heal you of your wounds, says the Lord, because they have called you an outcast, saying It is Zion whom no man seeks after.” In the same way Jesus came, seeking after those who were called outcasts, and with the same intention to restore them to health, aligned Himself directly with God in His actions. He was Himself acting as the divine Physician. For was it not God Himself Who said in Exodus 15.26, “I am the Lord Who heals you.”

God was portrayed as the Great Physician, and it was to Him that the Psalmist said, “I said, Oh Lord, have mercy on me, heal my soul for I have sinned against you” (Psalm 41.4). For He is the God Who is the healer of those with a humble and contrite spirit (Isaiah 57.15-19). And that is precisely what Jesus was intending to do here, to heal the souls of those who were repentant and who sought God. He was here on earth doing God’s healing work for sinners. And He could say, “I have come (as a doctor) not to call the righteous, but sinners”, thus aligning Himself with God as the Great Physician. He saw in these people those who said, “Come and let us return to the Lord. For He has torn us and He will heal us. He has smitten and He will bind us up” (Hosea 6.1). (Notice that Hosea 6.2 may well be behind His claim that He would be raised on the third day and Hosea 6.6 is quoted by Him against the Pharisees in Matthew 9.13. This was clearly a passage that He knew well and often applied to His ministry, which may well suggest that He had it in mind here).

Notice that this passage in Mark ends on this statement. This is its great climax. Mark is not at this point interested in the response made to His words. It is the words themselves, and what they have to say to his readers, that matter.

The Heavenly Bridegroom Has Come To Call His Bride and Provide New Truth (2.18-22).

In this passage Jesus defends His disciples right not to fast. John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, seemingly at a season when fasting was expected of pious men. His point is that fasting indicates mourning and sorrow for sin as men hope for a better future, while for His disciples that is not necessary because a better future has already come. It was not right therefore that they fast, because the One is now among them Who will fulfil all God’s promises so that they should be rejoicing. For He Himself has come as the heavenly Bridegroom promised in the Scriptures, come to be united with His bride (compare Matthew 12.49-50; Hebrews 2.11 where He is their Elder Brother). That is why what they should be doing is rejoice. He then goes on to point out that what He has brought for men replaces the old rather worn out teaching. He is referring, not to the Scriptures themselves, which did not need to be replaced, but to what men had made of those Scriptures, which did.

Analysis of 2.18-22.

  • a And John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, and they come and say to Him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, and yet your disciples do not fast?” (18).
  • b And Jesus said to them, “Can the sons of the bridechamber fast while the Bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the Bridegroom with them they cannot fast” (19).
  • c “But the days will come when the Bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day” (20).
  • b “No man sews a piece of undressed cloth on an old piece of clothing, otherwise that which should fill it up (or ‘the patch’ - to pleroma) takes away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made” (21).
  • a “And no man puts new wine into old wineskins, or else the wine will burst the skins, and the wine perishes, and the skins. But they put new wine into fresh wineskins” (22).

Note that in ‘a’ the question is why Jesus’ disciples do not behave like other dedicated religious men, and in the parallel the answer is because new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. In ‘b’ Jesus says that the Bridegroom’s special friends cannot fast while the Bridegroom is with them, because by His presence a new situation has arisen and the old methods will spoil the new, and in the parallel no one tries to repair old clothing with a patch of new cloth, again because they are incompatible. Centrally in ‘c’ is what the future holds, that the Bridegroom will eventually be forcibly removed. Then indeed the disciples will fast (compare John 16.20).

2.18 ‘And John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, and they come and say to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, and yet your disciples do not fast?”.’

The incident begins with this question about fasting. With the stricter Jews fasting was a regular practise. While the Day of Atonement was the only day on which fasting was actually compulsory (according to the general interpretation of Leviticus 16.29 in those days), they also fasted on other occasions such as at the Feasts of Dedication and Purim, and the fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months (Zechariah 8.19). And this included fasting on two days every week, (probably on Mondays and Thursdays), for the whole day until sunset (compare Luke 18.12). They felt that somehow this fasting would help them to achieve a higher standard of covenant life and give them credit with God (compare how David hoped that his fasting would move God - 2 Samuel 12.16, 21-23). Within the idea of fasting there may well have been that of mourning over sin and of a greater determination to seek God unhindered by earthly restraints. And this could only be for the good. But sadly some of those who fasted had other ideas in mind. They made sure that it was brought to people’s attention. They whitened their faces and dishevelled their clothes, ‘that they might appear to men to fast’ (Matthew 6.16). And it thus made them self-righteous and did them great harm. But as men always will, others admired them for their self-sacrifice.

This would appear to have been a recognised fast when all pious men could be expected to fast, made even more potent for the disciples of John because of their master’s imprisonment or martyrdom. This last fact would make Jesus remarks all the more telling, as does His warning that one day His disciples will need to fast because of what will happen to Him. In the case of the Pharisees and that of John’s disciples, the fasting was clearly noted and admired by many.

Thus the failure of Jesus’ disciples to fast brought comment. Those who claimed to be extra-religious and to claim a special dedication to God were expected to fast at certain times, and to show that they were doing so. Why then did they not? Was there something lacking in their genuine dedication and mourning over sin? Jesus’ reply contains the idea that when fasting we must always consider what the purpose is. But it went further than that, for He seized the opportunity of further revelation concerning Himself.

‘The disciples of the Pharisees.’ An expression only used here but the same idea is conveyed by Matthew 22.16 and possibly also by Matthew 12.27; Luke 11.19. Perhaps they are mentioned especially because it was the learners who made the greatest efforts to make sure that people (and their own mentors) knew that they were fasting.

2.19 ‘And Jesus said to them, “Can the sons of the bridechamber fast while the Bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the Bridegroom with them they cannot fast”.’

His first point is that fasting is reserved for times of mourning and unhappiness, mourning over failure and unhappiness about sin. But those who are appointed at a wedding to be with the bridegroom to sustain him cannot fast, for they would then mar the celebrations. Rather must they eat and drink and be joyful. A Jewish wedding lasted for seven days, and they were days of feasting and merriment during which the bridegroom would be celebrating. And he would have with him his closest friends to share his joy with him. To seek to fast under such circumstances would be an insult. Indeed the Rabbis actually excluded people at a wedding feast from the need to fast. Thus a unique occasion, and only a unique occasion exempted men from fasting, and Jesus is saying that such a unique occasion was now here.

This in itself was a remarkable claim, that because He had come men need not fast. It was to claim divine prerogative, and to indicate the arrival of a new beginning. Moses could not have said it. Elijah could not have said it. John the Baptiser could not have said it. It required a greater than they.

But unquestionably Jesus was conveying a deeper message even than this, as the next verse brings out. He was pointing to Himself as the great Bridegroom whose presence meant that men need not fast, the great Bridegroom promised in the Scriptures. In Isaiah 62.5, the prophet says “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so will your God rejoice over you”. The picture is emphasised and poignant. Isaiah points out that they have been called Forsaken, and their land Desolate, but they will be renamed because God delights in them and their land will be married. He will be their Bridegroom. There God is the Bridegroom, and His restored people are the Bride. Thus Jesus, by describing Himself as the Bridegroom of God’s restored people, shows that He sees Himself as uniquely standing in the place of God in His relationship to the people.

A similar vivid picture is also brought out in Jeremiah 2.2 where the Lord says of His people, “I remember concerning you the kindness of your youth, the love of your espousals, how you went after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.” Here we have the Lord as the Bridegroom in waiting (compare Jeremiah 2.32. Compare also Ezekiel 16.8-14). It is thus very doubtful whether a discerning listener would fail to catch at least something of this implication.

That Jesus emphatically saw Himself as the Bridegroom comes out elsewhere in the Gospels. Consider the marriage feast for the son (Matthew 22.2-14) and the Bridegroom at the wedding where the foolish virgins were excluded (Matthew 25.1-13), both clear pictures of Jesus. And John the Baptiser described Him in the same way (John 3.29). Thus Jesus was declaring in another way that the ‘the Kingly Rule of God has drawn near’, and that He was a unique figure come from God, the heavenly Bridegroom, with the aim of receiving the loving response of God’s people..

2.20 “But the days will come when the Bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.”

These words confirm that we are to see in the picture of the Bridegroom something significant concerning Jesus. For the Bridegroom Who was now here, would one day be snatched away (the verb is forceful - compare Isaiah 53.8) and then they will have good cause to fast. Jesus knew already from the voice at His baptism that He was called on to fulfil the ministry of the suffering Servant, and this was confirmed by John’s words, “Behold the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1.29). Thus we have here the first indication of His awareness of the brutal end that awaited Him. He knew that He must face suffering on behalf of His people. And then indeed His disciples would fast. He was well aware of what had happened to John the Baptiser so that it was no great step from that for Him to realise that it could soon happen to Him, and the disciples may well have taken His words in those terms.

Interestingly the words do not encourage regular fasting. The disciples would indeed sorrow but their sorrow would be turned into joy (John 16.20). Thus the need for fasting would quickly pass and would be no more. There is no real encouragement to fasting here.

2.21 ‘No man sews a piece of undressed cloth on an old piece of clothing, otherwise that which should fill it up (or ‘the patch’ - to pleroma) takes away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.’

Jesus then emphasises the changed state of affairs by two illustrations. In context He is arguing against fasting. He is saying that we should not take old ideas, in context the ideas about fasting, and apply them to a new situation. Otherwise both will be spoiled. This suggests that He saw fasting as being mainly for the old dispensation, but not for the new. The old world fasted because they waited in penitence for God to act. But now God was acting and fasting was therefore a thing of the past. Now was the time for rejoicing.

The words contain within them the general idea that what Jesus has come to bring is new, that is that ‘the Kingly Rule of God has drawn near’. So His point is that now, because of that, the present is a time of rejoicing and everything must be looked at in its light. The old has passed, and the new has come (compare 2 Corinthians 5.17). The extraordinary significance of this statement must not be overlooked. Jesus was clearly declaring that in His coming as the Bridegroom a whole new way of thinking and living had been introduced. He was the introducer of a new age. It was the acceptable year of the Lord. Repentance and forgiveness in the new age into which they were now entering would lead to lives of joy, first with the earthly and then with the heavenly (risen) Bridegroom. Thus fasting will be unnecessary except in exceptional circumstances, in the brief period before final victory. Everything is different and old ways must be forgotten.

‘A piece of undressed cloth.’ That is, one that has not been washed and shrunk, thus making it unsuitable for repairing old clothing, for once the clothing was washed the patch would shrink and tear the clothing.

While not being the direct significance here where it is simply an illustration of incompatibility, this reference to clothing gains new meaning in the light of Jesus’ idea elsewhere, which He Himself may have had in mind, for the man who seeks to enter the heavenly wedding without having a proper wedding garment on will be cast out (Matthew 22.11-12 compare Revelation 19.8; 3.5, 18). Those who would enter His presence must be clothed in His imputed and imparted righteousness alone. No partially patched up dress will do for them.

2.22 ‘And no man puts new wine into old wineskins, or else the wine will burst the skins, and the wine perishes, and the skins. But they put new wine into fresh wineskins.’

The double illustration enforces the lesson. Old wineskins (for containing wine) have become dried out and frail as a result of the action of the wine. They have ceased to be pliable. They are thus unable to contain the action of the new wine. So if new wine is put into them they will burst and both the wine and the wineskins will be lost.

Once more the emphasis is on the fact that in this new age which was beginning, the old outward things must be done away. Many religious ideas and practises had grown up through the centuries, and as will happen to such ideas they had become old and dried up. One such idea was regular fasting. But now that the new age has come, a new look must be taken at everything. This was the time for drinking new wine, the time for rejoicing. To put that new wine into the old wineskins would destroy it and people would then be bereft of both the old and the new. They would have lost everything.

Paul had the same thought from a different perspective when he said, “if any man is in Christ he is a new creature, the old things are passed away. Behold they are become new.” For when we come to Christ we are taken out of the past and brought into a new future. Everything becomes new. And we do well not to go back to the old, and indeed must be careful not to.

The Son of Man Is Lord of the Sabbath (2.23-28).

In this incident we are provided with an example of how the Pharisees sought to cling to the old, while Jesus was introducing the new. The Pharisees believed that there were certain things that epitomised Israel’s covenant with God, and that it would be by observing these fully that they would help to issue in God’s Kingly Rule. These included washing rituals which kept them ‘clean’ from defilement by an outer world which did not observe God’s requirement to be ritually ‘clean’; strictly tithing all their possessions; avoiding being involved with all who did not subscribe to their ideas, and strictly observing the Sabbath. These things had become the be all and end all of their lives. Thus when they saw the disciples of the new prophet flouting the Sabbath rules as laid down by the Scribes, they were both horrified and furious. It went against all in which they believed. This prophet was, in their eyes, actually delaying the time when God’s Kingly Rule would come, so mechanical were they in their views. And when Jesus brought out that as the new David He took a different view of the Sabbath, and supported it by citing the Scriptures, it was beyond what they could take. It was one thing for David to behave like this (no one had ever criticised David for it), it was quite another for this upstart ‘prophet’ to do it. And this was especially so when He claimed as the Son of Man to be Lord of the Sabbath (although they might not have been sure at this stage whether He was referring to Himself or someone else).

Analysis.

  • a And it happened that He was going on the Sabbath day through the cornfields, and His disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn (23).
  • b And the Pharisees said to Him, “Look, why do they on the Sabbath day what is not lawful?” (24).
  • c And He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he had need and was hungry, he and those who were with him? How, in the passage headed ‘Abiathar the High Priest’, he entered into the house of God, and ate the shewbread which it is not lawful to eat, except for the priests, and gave also to those who were with him?” (25-26).
  • b And He said, “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath” (27).
  • a “So that the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath (28).”

Note that in ‘a’ we have described what happened on the Sabbath, and in the parallel it could not be criticised because the Son of Man was Lord of the Sabbath. In ‘b’ the Pharisees charge the disciples with doing what was not lawful on the Sabbath, and in the parallel Jesus points out that man was not made in order to establish and preserve the Sabbath, but that God’s purpose for the Sabbath was that it might benefit man. Centrally in ‘c’ He demonstrates that as the new David He has the authority to shape God’s Law.

2. 23 ‘And it happened that he was going on the Sabbath day through the cornfields, and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn.’

What the disciples were doing in plucking the corn would have been seen as within their rights on any other day of the week, as long as they did not use a sickle (Deuteronomy 23.25), and it is not for that that they would be criticised. The problem lay in the fact that they did it on the Sabbath day and that what they were doing was seen as reaping and threshing corn, both forbidden on the Sabbath (Exodus 34.21). The Rabbis had at various times laid down a considerable number of regulations about the Sabbath in order to prevent it being violated and this was included among them. And it was not just a matter of being awkward. They genuinely believed that such activity could have awful consequences.

2.24 ‘And the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why do they on the Sabbath day what is not lawful?”

They were probably quite genuinely upset. There is no one more vulnerable than the sincere person who has established a set of regulations as being right and then sees them being flouted. They just could not understand how Jesus, Who seemed willing to live within their requirements (which they saw as God’s requirements), could allow such a thing to be done. They considered that the disciples were behaving unlawfully with great abandon. They were defiling God’s day of rest.

But the statement may be a little more sinister than that. The punishment for Sabbath breaking was stoning, and certainly later it was laid down that a warning must first be given before the stoning could take place. Men must be given one chance. Thus ‘what is not lawful’ may have been an official warning. They may have been saying, ‘we are giving them a last chance. If they do it again they will be punished by the synagogue.’

2.25-26 ‘And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he had need and was hungry, he and those who were with him? How, in the passage headed ‘Abiathar the High Priest’, he entered into the house of God, and ate the shewbread which it is not lawful to eat, except for the priests, and gave also to those who were with him?”

At first this answer seems to have little to do with the question, for there is no suggestion that David did it on the Sabbath (although it is true that that is at a later time suggested by a leading Rabbi). But Jesus’ point is looking higher than that. He is talking about authority. In the passage in question (1 Samuel 21.1-6) David and his men, pretending to be on the king’s business, required food, and the priest told them that that the only food available was the shewbread which had been on the table in the house of God (Exodus 25.23-30). This was intended only for the priests for it was ‘holy’, that is, set apart as God’s. But, no doubt in some fear of this powerful man with his armed warriors (see verse 1), he allowed him to have the shewbread for his men as long as they had kept themselves from women and were not therefore ‘unclean’. He basically yielded to David’s authority. (It may be that the regulations were not being so strictly enforced at that time, as often happens with ritual. But it may simply be that the priest was prepared to allow sacrilege to save his life).

The point of the story could be seen as indicating two things. Firstly that when men were hungry and in need cultic regulations could be set aside for people in a suitable condition, and secondly that this was on the authority of and by the action of the future King David. Yet the Pharisees had never been heard to condemn David for his behaviour, because David was held in such high regard. Rather they saw it as his right because of who he was, the chosen and ‘anointed’ of God. And it was clear also that the Scriptures had not condemned it. But the question must be asked, why not? And the answer could only be that they accepted that the regulations could be set aside in cases of need when one with sufficient authority from God was there to set them aside.

The fact is that Jesus did not argue that they were simply accusing the disciples on a technicality. He appears to have accepted that they could be seen as ‘breaking’ the Sabbath Law as interpreted by the Rabbis. (What he says later, that the Sabbath was made for man, seems to confirm this. That only comes in as an argument if this was seen as the breaking of the strict Sabbath rule as interpreted by the Rabbis). Nor would either Jesus or the Pharisees have agreed that God’s Law could be set aside for man’s convenience. (And the disciples were neither starving nor hungry soldiers on the run). Nor would either Jesus or the Pharisees have allowed the specific and forceful ordinances of the Law in the Pentateuch, with their blessings and cursings, to be easily set aside. The Law was seen as rigid in both their eyes. Jesus would not have maintained otherwise, and certainly the Pharisees would not have accepted it. And both knew that the Law was especially rigid about the Sabbath. A man had been stoned for gathering sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15.32).

Thus the point could only be that the regulations could be set aside in cases of need when one with sufficient authority from God was there to set them aside. And Jesus certainly puts the onus on David. “Did you never read what David did? --- he entered in -- ate the shewbread -- gave also to those who were with him.” And that is the point. It was because it was David that the action remained uncriticised.

The implication must therefore be that the disciples could also therefore be allowed to gather food and feed themselves on the Sabbath when they were hungry (not a little peckish) because the equivalent in authority to David was permitting it. The Sabbath Law could be set aside in this case because the Son of Man had determined it, and ‘the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath’. This is the only explanation that fits all the facts.

It would always have been open to Jesus to argue that what the disciples had done was not really ‘working’ and should not therefore be treated as a breach of the Sabbath (they had probably done it unconsciously not for a moment thinking of it as work, possibly unaware of the Pharisees’ detailed regulations). But He was well aware that His opponents would be able to produce Rabbinic teaching that asserted that it was. What He was asserting therefore was that it was allowable in this case because an authority greater than that of the Rabbis was present.

Jesus’ point was that the Kingly Rule of God was here and that its authority was being exercised by Him. Thus He had the right to make new regulations about the Sabbath, as David had before Him about the shewbread, in his case also when his new kingdom was about to come in. This also ties in with his illustrations of the patching of the old clothes and the filling of the old wine skins with new wine. The old had passed, the new had come. In a very real sense it was a Messianic claim, but it was discreetly put. It was a claim to a unique authority from God as had been illustrated by His teaching, the casting out of evil spirits and His power over disease, and was now claimed over the interpretation of the Law. It was the equivalent of, ‘but I say to you’ (found regularly in Matthew 5).

‘In the passage headed ‘Abiathar the High Priest’. For the purpose of the readings in the Synagogue the Law was split into sections each given a heading. This would then be one of the headings, the heading of the passage containing the incident of the shewbread. It is then not saying that it happened in the days of Abiathar as High Priest, only that it is described in Scripture in that passage which was headed ‘Abiathar the High Priest’ (e.g. 1 Samuel 21-22). Another such passage was headed ‘The Bush’ (Luke 20.37). (This incident actually led to Abiathar being made High Priest).

Others see the mention of Abiathar as taking a famous and unmistakable name in order to date the incident (thus ‘in the days of Abiathar who subsequently became the High Priest’, or ‘during the lifetime of Abiathar, who later became High Priest’). It should be noted that no one appears to have objected to this description, neither the Pharisees nor the Gospel writers. And yet they knew the Scriptures better than most of us do, and were as well aware as Jesus was that it was Ahimelech who was actually High Priest at the time. They were clearly satisfied with the accuracy of the description.

‘The house of God.’ For an example of this description being applied to the Tabernacle see Judges 19.31.

2.27 ‘And he said, “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.’

Jesus was not saying by this that because the Sabbath was made for man he could do whatever he liked on it. What He was pointing out was that the Sabbath with its strict rules had been intended for man’s benefit. For slaves and bondservants and suchlike it had always been a huge blessing, for it guaranteed them a day of complete rest. And therefore what Jesus was saying was that to castigate men because they had simply and innocently taken a few grains of corn and rubbed them between their hands was taking the Sabbath rules too far. But in view of the fact that those rules had been expanded and pronounced on by the Rabbis, it was necessary for Jesus to make His claim to have the right to change the Law of the Sabbath.

2.28 ‘So that the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.’

That is, has the right to shape and mould the Sabbath Law just as the Rabbis had, and as David had cultic Law, and had the right to, as it were, go above the Rabbis’ heads because of His position of extreme authority. This was an essential part of Jesus’ argument. It was the factor that justified His argument.

Mark therefore intends his readers to recognise in this argument and statement one more reason why they can recognise Jesus as the Son of God. It is because as the glorious Son of Man He is Lord over the Sabbath.

The Son of Man Heals What Has Withered And Again Reveals Himself as Lord over the Sabbath (3.1-6).

In this narrative the Pharisees are seen as now deliberately out to trap Jesus. They had made their assessment and now it was a question of gathering evidence against Him. We have already seen how their opposition to Him had been growing (2.6, 9-10, 16, 24, 30), and it has now reached a climax (3.6). So they deliberately make use of a man with a paralysed and withered hand in order to test out what Jesus will do on the Sabbath day, having in fact little doubt what He would actually do, for they were now convinced that He treated the Law lightly, and especially the Sabbath, which in their eyes was a matter of huge importance. For to them strict observance of the Sabbath was one of the signs of a true Jew, and evidence of a true obedience to the covenant. Jesus, however, confuted them, not by diminishing the Sabbath, but rather, as in the previous example, by exalting it as of great benefit to mankind. Jesus was not anti-Sabbath. He was simply ‘anti’ the unnecessary restrictions put on it by the Scribes and Pharisees.

Analysis of 3.1-6.

  • a And He entered again into the Synagogue, and there was a man there who had a withered hand. And they watched Him whether He will heal him on the Sabbath day, that they might accuse Him (1-2).
  • b And He said to the man who had his hand withered, “come and stand among us” (3).
  • c And He says to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath day to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to kill?” But they held their peace (4).
  • b And when He had looked round on them with anger, being grieved at the hardening of their heart, He says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out and his hand was restored (5).
  • a And the Pharisees went out and immediately, with the officials of Herod, took counsel against Him how they might destroy Him (6).

Note that in ‘a’ the Pharisees watch Him in order to accuse Him, and in the parallel they plan how they can destroy Him. In ‘b’ Jesus calls the man with the withered hand to stand among them, and in the parallel He looks round at the Pharisees and restores the man’s arm. Centrally in ‘c’ He demonstrates the fallacy of their thinking.

3.1-2 ‘And he entered again into the Synagogue, and there was a man there who had a withered hand. And they watched him whether he will heal him on the Sabbath day, that they might accuse him.’

We are not told who brought the man, or where he came from. But that he was seen by the Pharisees as a test case was apparent. For knowing of the man and his expected presence in the Synagogue they had come to watch what Jesus would do. The Rabbis had strict rules about healing on the Sabbath. When there was an emergency case and life was threatened healing activity was allowed, but where that was not the case, and it could well await another day, healing was not allowed. Thus a woman in childbirth could be helped on the Sabbath. An affection of the throat could be treated for that was seen as possibly life threatening. But a fracture or sprain could not, for that could await another day. A cut could be bandaged (it could lead to death if uncovered) but it must then not have further treatment until after the Sabbath. These were the interpretations of the Rabbis and they were strictly enforced.

Any Rabbis and other prominent Pharisees who were in the Synagogue would sit in the ‘chief seats’ (Matthew 23.6; James 2.2-3), which were those nearest to the reading desk where the scrolls of the Scriptures were placed to be read. There was also a special seat there, either for the most distinguished present, or to contain the scrolls of the Torah, which was called ‘Moses’ Seat’ (Matthew 23.2). They thus had a good view of what was happening, while they awaited further events. It is worthy of note that the fact that they had come as they had, is testimony to the fact that they did believe that Jesus could heal the man. They had already seen what He could do and were not in any doubt about it. But they simply dismissed such healings as having no relevance because they were so prejudiced by their own ideas and had convinced themselves that some trickery or demon activity was involved. And yet what better testimony could we have to the Lord’s ability to work miracles, than that these His enemies came expecting Him to do so even though they did not want Him to be able to do so? And it gains the greater force in that it is not the main purpose of the recording of the incident.

‘And He entered again into the Synagogue.’ It was His usual habit to attend the Synagogue on the Sabbath, for He respected both the Synagogue and the Sabbath.

‘A man with a withered hand.’ This was probably caused by some kind of paralysis. He was thus unable to move it which was why it had withered. But it was not life threatening. He had had it for a long time. Yet such a withered hand contained in it much symbolism. As we have seen, the passages that we have been examining all contained references back to Old Testament ideas. What then of the withered hand?

We should note firstly that the hand was the means by which men exercised their power. We can compare with this how God’s activity was often described as being done by ‘the hand (or arm) of the Lord’. It was by the use of their hands that men accomplished their daily tasks. This man, in contrast, had lost his ability to do things because his hand was withered. And in that he was like Israel. In the Old Testament there were two prominent references to what was withered. The first concerned vegetation and fruit trees, which were often seen as a picture of Israel. This term ‘withered’ (or dried up) was regularly applied in LXX to vegetation and fruit trees when seen as a picture of Israel (Hosea 9.16; Isaiah 27.11; 40.24; Jeremiah 23.10; Lamentations 4.8; Ezekiel 17.9-10, 24; Joel 1.12, 17, 20; Amos 1.2; 4.7; Nahum 1.4; Zechariah 10.2; compare 11.20-21; John 15.6). The second well known application was to the dry (withered) bones in Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37.2, 4). These too represented Israel. And in both cases it was God’s promise that one day these things that were dried up would be restored. So the withered hand of this man could be seen, and probably was by Mark, as like the withered hand of Israel which was dead and unable to bear fruit.

3.3 ‘And he said to the man who had his hand withered, “come and stand among us”.’

Jesus was fully aware of the whole situation, and of the tension in the synagogue. We can imagine the long hall, and the Pharisees sitting there in the chief seats, and the pointed silence when Jesus came in, with eyes turning to look at the paralysed man. Jesus was left in no doubt as to what the situation was. And He could in fact have told the man to come and see Him after sunset, when the Sabbath was over. But that would then have been to concede that the Rabbis were right, and He was not prepared to do that, for in His eyes they had gone too far. He was not in any doubt about the situation. He knew that they were directly challenging His authority. So He called the man to come and stand where everyone could see.

‘Come and stand among us.’ This is literally, ‘Rise into the midst’.

3.4 ‘And he says to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath day to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to kill?” But they held their peace.’

Then Jesus directed His attention to the Pharisees, and He could see the workings of their hearts. He knew exactly what they were thinking. And He knew that even as they sat there they had it in their minds to have Him killed. So while to the ordinary people these words were about the man and his condition, and Jesus was asking whether he should heal (do good) or refrain from healing (do harm and fail to help the man in his distress), the Pharisees knew that He knew their hearts and was speaking of them. They knew that it was they who were there with the intention of doing harm to Jesus, and were even aiming to kill Him, and they knew that they were using the Sabbath day in order to attain their end.

So His words contrasted what He was about to do, with what they were about to do. He was going to do good, they were aiming to do harm, He was going to help a man live again, they were planning to have Him put to death. But even at this stage He pleaded with them to consider and to ask themselves who was really in the right. (He was not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance).

‘Is it lawful.’ The Pharisees were very keen on describing something as ‘lawful’ or ‘unlawful’. Jesus therefore wanted them to consider whether they thought that what they were planning to do was lawful. As a technical phrase which they used when giving a final warning concerning behaviour, they should have taken especial note of its significance. They too were receiving a final warning.

‘On the Sabbath day.’ That day which God had set aside as life-giving and blessed.

‘To do good or to do harm.’ This was the crux. What should the right thinking person do when these alternatives were offered? We can be in little doubt that He had the crowds with Him. They instinctively knew the answer and may well not have realised what a fix the Rabbis were in.

‘To save life or to kill.’ There was no question of the man with his withered arm being in danger of death, so He must have had the Pharisees in mind here, otherwise He could have stopped after ‘to do harm’. The crowds simply saw it as an added example to justify doing good on the Sabbath, but the guilty men present could hardly have avoided seeing the further implication.

‘But they held their peace.’ They did not want to look bad in front of the people, and they knew how good Jesus was at turning things in His favour. So at His words they said nothing. This in itself revealed their guilt. But they were not willing to admit that they might be wrong. Instead they sat there, simmering with a growing anger, the kind of anger that comes when people are behaving in the wrong way, and underneath are aware in their subconscious that what they are doing is not quite right. It was an awareness that they had to stifle in order to be able to justify themselves.

3.5 ‘And when he had looked round on them with anger, being grieved at the hardening of their heart, he says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out and his hand was restored.’

‘He -- looked round on them with anger.’ Jesus was angry because these men, who considered themselves to be especially devout, were deliberately and arrogantly closing their minds to what, within themselves, they knew to be true. It is one of the specific marks of the depths of man’s sinfulness that he can consider himself devout and yet act wrongly for his own ends, while at the same time convincing himself that what he is doing is justified. For the truth is that man learns to control and quench the niggling of the conscience. We are all good at doing it. And that was what these men were doing. We must beware lest we become like these Pharisees.

But He was also grieved. The word means ‘to mourn with’. There was an element in it of both compassion and grief, and of an awareness of their dreadful condition. He knew that their hearts ‘were hardened’, (or many consider it means ‘were blinded’). And He must have thought, ‘if only these men could allow the barriers they had built around themselves to break down’. But He was beginning to recognise that they were basically unteachable, because the wall that they had built around the Law had been built around their hearts too. And they could no longer be moved. So Jesus was both angry and grieved. Indeed He had a whole mixture of emotions at the situation. He grieved at them and He grieved for them.

‘He says to the man, “Stretch out your hand”.’ Jesus knew exactly what He was doing. He knew what the reaction would be. But He knew that He had to do it, for they were specifically challenging His authority to act as He was doing. They were seeking to make Him bend to the will of the Rabbis and admit that His claims at the previous incident had been excessive. But this He could not do, for He did have God’s authority to question the interpretations of the Rabbis, and He wanted all to know it. (Had He been a fellow Rabbi they might have accepted this argument once he had established a great reputation. But to them He was just an outsider making great and dangerous claims so that His argument was considered not to be worth examining. So He was challenging their authority just as they were challenging His).

‘And his hand was restored.’ Before their very eyes they saw that weakened, withered, pitiful arm become whole. This was a picture of what Jesus could also do for men’s whole being (compare 2.17) and of what He could do for Israel (John 15.1-6). Here was the One who had come to restore withered Israel. How then could they still maintain their stubbornness? But they had come knowing that Jesus could heal, and so its message did not get home. In a sense they did not see it. They were concentrating too much on what they were defending to consider the implications of what He had done. They were fighting for their very existence. And so unbelievably they dismissed the clinching argument, and did not even realise it.

3.6 ‘And the Pharisees went out and immediately, with the officials of Herod, took counsel against him how they might destroy him.’

We have observed the slow growth of their opposition. First they had come to observe and act as critics, judging whether this man deserved their support (2.6), and their criticism had been silent. Then they had been worsted in argument in front of the crowds and had become resentful (2.9-10). Then they had sought to attack Him more openly through His disciples and by shaming Him (2.16). Then they had challenged Him directly about the Sabbath Law and He had cited a greater authority, the Scriptures and Himself (2.24, 30). Now He had once again shamed them and made them look small and vindictive, and had confirmed before the people His own authority as an interpreter of the Law. So to the Pharisees He was clearly a threat to the whole structure of their religion. And this was what possessed their minds, so much so that they could not give Him a fair hearing. They could only rather come to one conclusion, and that was that He must be got rid of.

But they did not want to upset the civic authorities, whose help indeed they would need, so they went to the officials at Herod’s court, those enemies of the Pharisees whom they saw as ritually unclean and looked on with contempt because of their contacts with Gentiles, and whom they despised for their extravagant living, and put their case to them. And the Herodians, aware of the damage that John the Baptiser had done to them and Herod, agreed to help. They did not want another John. So together they began to plan how to put Him to death without it causing trouble with the people.

They knew that it would not be easy. The crowds were unquestionably behind Jesus and they knew that they could not afford another mistake like Herod’s with John the Baptiser, which had produced great resentment. So they bided their time and plotted. But one problem with Him was that He kept disappearing from their territory, and another was His continual popularity. For they were afraid of popular feeling.

We need not assume by this that all of them without exception had His death in mind as a constantly fixed and determined purpose. They had all probably agreed at first, but once their resentment had had chance to die down some may well have had second thoughts and wanted to delay things. For there are always those who are more cautious and more reasonable and who may even suggest thinking again. And the Herodians also knew that they had to be careful, so that no doubt subsequent warning voices had added to their caution. Thus the initial enmity is understandable, given their position, while their delay in acting is then also understandable. That is why they appear to have sent for the great Doctors of the Law who arrived from Jerusalem (3.22). They were beginning to feel that they needed reinforcements, and had come to feel that this was a matter best dealt with by them. They were probably sure that He would not get the better of those great men of the Law! And in view of the volatile situation in Palestine at that time they knew that they had to get it right.

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