Sermon, September 15: Jesus Must be Destroyed

Mark has told us that Jesus had become famous very quickly because of His healing miracles, and that everywhere He went there were crowds of people checking Him out. Among this crowd, Mark tells us, were the religious teachers, the Scribes and Pharisees, and the more they hear and see of Jesus, the less they like it. 2.6f, they hear Jesus’s claim to be able to forgive sins, and they call it blasphemy. 2.16f, Jesus having just invited a tax collector called Levi, also known by his Greek name of Matthew, to work with Him, and now at a big dinner they see Him eating with other tax collectors, and are disgusted—Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners? Tax collectors were considered almost the worst of sinners, traitors to the Jewish nation because they collected taxes on behalf of the Roman Emperor. 2.18, Jesus is with people who weren’t fasting twice a week the way they and even John the Baptist’s disciples did, and some people, no doubt including the scribes, question that. 2.23f, they see some of Jesus’s followers doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath, and they question that. And by 3.2 they have answered their own question—‘it’s because he’s evil’ (3.30)— and are watching to see if He will heal on the sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. And when He does heal someone, right in their faces, looking at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, they went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. The Herodians were the staff of Herod Antipas, who ruled Galilee on behalf of the Romans. In other words, they sit down with the government and say ‘this man has to be dealt with permanently’.

Compare and contrast: people who can’t get enough of Jesus and people who want to destroy Him, and neither of them learning from His teaching. We saw last week how the ordinary people were not listening to His teaching on their need for forgiveness; this morning let’s take a look and see what the religious types are refusing to listen to.

The context of Jesus’s teaching in these passages is sin, fasting, and the right observance of the Sabbath. First, sin, in response to that question about tax collectors and sinners: 2.17—Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Jesus came not to call the righteous, but sinners. Perhaps the first thing to notice here is the connection with the healing-teaching theme that ran through the earlier passage, 1.21–2.13. Jesus’s words look back at that: Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. He has been besieged by sick people, who need a physician, and look to Jesus as their physician. Please heal this, please heal that. But as we saw,  Jesus came to preach the gospel of forgiveness of sins, and He has demonstrated His authority to forgive sins, to the amazement of the Scribes and the Pharisees, who know that only God can forgive sins. Jesus’s next words, I came not to call the righteous, but sinners, follow the theme of the previous passage in changing the subject from healing to teaching: at one level to His teaching on the need for forgiveness of sin, but at another level this repeats His claim to be God become Man. He not only claimed to have authority to forgive sins, which God alone can do, but demonstrated that authority by healing the man He had forgiven. And here He also demonstrates how completely God’s forgiveness deals with sin: forgiven people are not to be shunned but embraced, no matter what their sin was and embraced not only by God, but by those who desire to obey God.

He goes on to tell them that His presence is of such importance that traditions like fasting are wholly inappropriate for those with Him. Now the fasting which was so important to John the Baptist and to the Scribes was only a tradition, not a commandment. There were commanded fasts in the Old Testament, such as the one for the Day of Atonement, but the Scribes clearly aren’t referring to one of those. And because they weren’t commanded, the weekly fasts were usually set aside when they clashed with some important occasion, like a wedding. So Jesus says the wedding guests [can’t] fast while the bridegroom is with them. As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. His point is that His presence with them is like that, important enough that they should not fast, but celebrate as though for a wedding. The minimum He is saying is that His message of repentance and forgiveness is more important than their spiritual practice of fasting; but He may be saying more than that. The image of bridegroom was used for God in the Old Testament on a couple of occasions: Isaiah 54.4ff, your Creator is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit. The word ‘groom’ isn’t there, but the idea is. The same is true of Ezekiel 16.8, I plighted my troth to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord GOD, and you became mine. The image wasn’t so associated with God that Jesus’s claim is unmistakable, and we can’t say dogmatically that this is what Jesus was trying to say on this occasion as He had said it in the encounter with the paralysed man, but it was an image well known enough that the Scribes would have narrowed their eyes with suspicion and wondered, ‘what exactly does he mean? What’s he implying?’ What they greeted with suspicion, we, with the hindsight given by the resurrection, can greet with all the joy and celebration that Jesus says is appropriate in His presence. And indeed it is because of His continuing presence by faith with those who love Him that most Christians no longer consider fasting appropriate at any time—if the bridegroom was taken away from us on Good Friday, He certainly returned on Easter Sunday, never to be taken away again.

The climax of His teaching in these incidents comes in vv 25ff. Why are your disciples doing what is not lawful on the sabbath, they ask, referring to what could be thought of as the work of harvesting: plucking grain from the wheat growing in the fields through which they are passing. Jesus’s reply in v. 25 is Have you never read…? and He goes on to quote a Scripture passage which justifies what His disciples did. There are three important things to notice here. First, what Jesus says about how we know what is pleasing to God and what is displeasing to God: we know it because God’s word tells us. The Pharisees’ question, “Why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” is answered by a question of Jesus’s: “Why haven’t you read your Bibles, so that you would know the reason?” God gave us the Sabbath as a means of drawing closer to Him; and when it’s time for us to ask what’s right for us on the Sabbath, or any other occasion, we go not to traditions taught by men, but to the word of God.

Second, notice also how to use God’s word effectively: it’s not just a matter of doing a search for the word ‘sabbath’ on Bible Gateway, and then turning to all the Bible passages in which the word appears. The passage that Jesus refers the Pharisees to in v. 25 is not a passage about the Sabbath at all, but about the law which said that only the priests should eat what is called ‘the bread of the Presence’. And Jesus points out that if you read the story of David, who Scripture says obeyed God in all things except his adultery with Bathsheba, you see that when he was hungry and in need, he could eat that bread without disobeying God. Jesus applies that to the commandment about the Sabbath with the famous phrase of v 27, The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Scripture is not just something for us to look up rules in, it is our way of knowing the mind of God, and we should all be reading it, and thinking about what we read, so that we can discern God’s good will towards us. To use God’s word effectively, we must not only read it, but think about it in such a way as to be able to apply it to our own situation.

Third, the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath. Man is not the lord of the Sabbath, but Jesus is. He has authority to interpret the Old Testament commandments, because He is the God from Whom they came in the first place. Not only does He have authority on earth to forgive sins, the authority only God has, but authority to state the meaning of the commandments which God gave. The passage about the bridegroom may be hinting at His divine nature, but His claim to be Lord of the Sabbath is explicit.

And in case they missed the point, He confronts them with it. In Chapter 3.1 Jesus goes to the synagogue where they are, and where there is also a man with a withered hand. V 2 tells us that the Pharisees are watching Him to see whether He would heal the man on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. They didn’t believe His claim to authority, to be the Lord of the Sabbath, and in fact v 5 tells us that they had hardened their hearts against His teaching. They were too attached to their traditions of observing this rule and that rule that had guided them all their lives, and they weren’t ready to have Jesus open their eyes to something deeper. He tries again to open their eyes in v 4, asking them, Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill? But they don’t know their Bibles well enough to answer, they only know the rules, and they cannot say anything. Jesus is grieved at their hardness of heart, and He heals the man. And then we see just how far such hardness of heart can go when it is challenged: The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against Him, how to destroy Him. Jesus’s question had been well chosen, for here they are on the Sabbath preparing not to save life but to kill, to kill Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. The real issue here is Jesus’s challenge to the religious certainties of the Pharisees. They had the rules down pat, and any suggestion that those rules, those very spiritual and religious rules, might actually lead them into disobedience to God, was too threatening to bear.

There are still plenty of people making the same mistake the Pharisees made. Every one of us has spiritual traditions that we can be tempted to treasure more than Jesus’s Lordship. And when those spiritual traditions are discounted by someone, especially if it’s in Jesus’s name, every one of us can become as angry and implacable as these Pharisees. Christians have burned other Christians to death too many times for any of us to be complacent about this. A priest friend of mine used to have his office in the room where, within living memory, a Bishop of South Carolina was shot dead by one of his clergy over some dispute in the church. None of us are exempt from the temptation to see our outward observances as the key to our salvation, and to defend them to the point of disobedience to God.

Jesus’s teaching in these incidents is partly about Him, and partly about us. He has all the authority of God, we have all the weakness of man. We need forgiveness, He brings forgiveness. And if we are willing to admit our need of forgiveness, we can enjoy the fellowship with God for which we were created. That’s the good news, the evangel, the gospel. I invite you to join me in affirming the commitment to its truth contained in the Apostles’ Creed on p 5 of the leaflet.

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