Q & A with Dr. Warren Vanhetloo

Compiled from Dr. Warren VanHetloo’s “Cogitations,” July, 2010.

Question

Is it true that in the Gospels, Jesus rarely gives direct answers to questions?

Answer

I recall that His answers were always intended to be helpful but were not always the sort of answers the questioner expected. Consequently, I am setting out to examine several occasions of question-answer confrontations, starting with the Gospel of Mark.

The first one I find was not directed to Jesus, but He knew about it. A man was let down from the roof whom Jesus healed, saying, “Son, thy sins be forgiven thee” (KJV, Mark 2:4-5). Seeing and hearing this, certain scribes judged Him: “Why does this man thus speak blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God only?” (2:6-7). So far: 1) the healing had shown divine power, 2) forgiving his sins displayed divine power, which we understand to be actual, not just claimed or asserted. Although their thoughts were not expressed publicly, Jesus immediately was aware of what they were thinking—not by some outward facial expression, but as a divine awareness (2:8).

The reply of Jesus asserts His divine awareness of their thinking: “Why reason ye these things in your hearts?” Then He emphasizes His divine right by logic and by action. “Which is easier to say to one sick of the palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee, or to say, Arise, take up thy bed and walk?” but that you may know that the Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins (He said to the sick of the palsy), I say unto thee, Arise and take up thy bed and go thy way into thine house” (author’s translation, 2:8-11).

What amazing assertions! Here was one who could as easily command healing as forgive sins. As scribes, they should recognize His use of “Son of man” as one of the Messianic identifications of the OT. As humans, they should be aware that no ordinary man has power to command healing, and they should suspect that this one also has power from God to forgive sins. They should be disturbed that He knew their unexpressed thoughts.

The next was conclusive: “And immediately the man arose, took up the bed and went forth before them all” (KJV, 2:12). Whether all who saw this were fully convinced, “they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, We never saw it on this fashion” (2:12). This one incident was as convincing as those OT healings that authenticated the prophets of God. One simple, clear lesson for all men of all ages: If a sage or teacher or priest or whatever claims to be able to hear your confession and forgive your sin, be sure that, if he has divine power, he will be able to show it by miraculous divine healing. No man can command healing but God only. No man can forgive sins but God only. So, the answer to the inner inquiry of the scribes is clear, the Son of man, Jesus, is God come in the flesh.

A question to the disciples

A second inquiry apparently was conveyed to Jesus by His disciples (2:15-16). Jesus had called Matthew (Levi) to follow Him and was eating a meal in his house along with many “publicans and sinners” and His disciples. Scribes and Pharisees asked some of the disciples, “How is it that He eats and drinks with publicans and sinners?” (author’s translation, 2:16). The disciples may have conveyed this to Jesus, and He addressed them all: “They who are whole have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (KJV, 2:17).

Men often react against paying reasonable taxes. They quickly react if they consider the taxation too high or for a wrong purpose. Jews did not much like paying taxes to Romans for maintaining “peace” in their land. Worse, however, was the practice of many tax collectors of collecting a little more than the required tax. Common judgment was that all tax collectors were dishonest. Levi (Matthew) was not following Jesus; he was sitting at the place of collecting customs. As Jesus walked by, He said to Levi, “Follow Me,” which he immediately did (2:14). Then he opened his house to Jesus and His followers and many friends for a meal (2:15). These “friends” were, in the eyes of the scribes and Pharisees, implacable sinners.

The reply of Jesus is simple, clear, and direct. It took no explanation. It was unanswerable. No one goes to a physician unless he is ill. That’s a truism as much as not liking to pay taxes. Then, the claim that pervaded His teaching as He ministered for three years was “I am come” (2:17). Repeatedly Jesus proclaimed that He had come from heaven, from the Father, into this world. His virgin birth as a divine miracle was clearly taught in simple fashion. He boldly declared that He was God come in the flesh. His purpose? “I am not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (2:17).

Scribes and Pharisees had already condemned tax collectors, non-religious people, and outright sinners as guilty in the sight of God. It was harder for self-righteous leaders to see themselves as needy before a just God. They should recognize from their sacred Scriptures that all have sinned, but they have come to depend on good works as providing a ticket to Heaven. How is it for us today? Too many self-satisfied Americans are happy with thinking that their inner integrity and outward conduct are ample to gain heaven. Only when they come to recognize that they have sinned and come short of the glory of God will they turn to receive the forgiveness that has been purchased for their redemption.

More examples from Mark’s Gospel

The replies of Jesus to questions that were asked of Him early in His ministry provide good examples of the correctness, completeness, and clarity of His answers. We today find profit in what He taught, probably much more than those who asked Him the questions. Working through the Gospel of Mark, there are two more in the second chapter for us to consider in this survey as we endeavor to appreciate His teaching.

The question was about a public religious observance which was evident among others but missing among disciples of Jesus. “Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Thy disciples fast not?” Jesus answered with three comparisons (Mark 2:16-22). The first cited the joyous time at a wedding when the guests of the bridegroom gather for the union of bride and groom. The special fellowship of the occasion and the anticipation of the official union are without question a time of great merriment. No friend would refrain from participating in the festivities. The obvious likeness: these days when the disciples are walking with Jesus and anticipating His soon exaltation are worthy of maximum joyous participation.

Then Jesus revealed a new truth, surely strange to them: this bridegroom (Jesus) shall be taken away from them before the anticipated exaltation comes to pass (2:20). When He is unexpectedly taken away, then fasting will be appropriate. It will be a time of personal sorrow, however, rather than a time of mechanically repeated ritual. Jesus uses two analogies to explain important dispensational truth. A patch of unshrunk cloth sewed to an old garment will cause a worse tearing (2:21). That’s common knowledge. In connection with the teaching and ministry of Jesus, the likeness stresses that adding or maintaining ritual from an old dispensation will actually do damage to the new teaching He is proclaiming.

The same instruction is repeated using a different analogy. New wine put into old bottles will cause the bottles to burst, losing both the wine and the container (2:22). To use our current labels, trying to fit Christianity into the OT system is ruinous to both. It is important to keep the dispensations distinct. Jesus is come to establish something new, not to adjust the old. Learn only from the Master; don’t try to “interpret” His teaching according to personal preferences or practices.

Heads of grain on the Sabbath

A similar incident is recorded next (Mark 2:23-28), when the Pharisees noticed that the disciples of Jesus ate some of the grain in a field on the Sabbath. As Jews, they would not normally have done so. Did they do so now because of the example of Jesus? The Pharisees seem to blame Him when they inquire, “Why do they on the Sabbath day that which is not lawful?” (2:24). Again, the reply of Jesus is extensively instructive as well as direct and clear. He used two teachings from the OT. One was the example of David, in great need, eating of sacred bread usually reserved for priests (2:25-26). David also shared with his men. That was unusual, but not disrespectful. And it was not condemned by God.

The second teaching was instruction concerning the Sabbath: that it was appointed by God for the good of men and beasts (Exod. 23:12; Deut. 5:24). Both before the fall and after the fall, humans and work animals benefit from the rest of one day in seven. That rest in itself does not bless God or benefit Him. “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath” (2:27). God as sovereign determined the time of the rest. Thus it should be clear that God in the flesh, the Son of Man, is qualified as Lord of the Sabbath to determine what behavior is acceptable and unacceptable on the day.

Jesus took the occasion of these questions to make clear His nature and His mission. “The Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” (2:10). “I am come not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (2:17). “The Son of Man is Lord also of the Sabbath” (2:28). He answered fully and accurately the questions asked of Him, and in addition shared important theological truths. Even the disciples may not have fully appreciated it at the time, but the Holy Spirit brought His teaching to their remembrance and guided as they recorded it for posterity.


Warren Vanhetloo has AB, BD, ThM., ThD, and DD degrees. He served three pastorates in Michigan, taught 20 years at Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN), taught 23 years at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA), and is listed as adjunct faculty at Calvary. Retired, he lives in Holland, Michigan. Since the death of his wife (and at the urging of fellow faculty and former students) he sends an email publication called “Cogitations” to those who request it.

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Dick Dayton's picture

About 50 years ago, when I was a freshman at Cornell University, the school had a very high percentage of Jewish students. One of them told me a joke in Yiddish, which he then translated into English. "A man comes up to an older Jewish man and asks, 'Why does a Jew always answer a question with a question ?' The older man thinks for a moment, and says, 'Why not ?'"

After God drew me to Himself and I began a study of the New Testament, it is intriguing how many times the Savior answered a question with a question. However, His questions were always designed to make the inquirer think more deeply about spiritual truth.

This is also an illustration of the fact that our Bible is a book primarily written by Jewish people, and, even as God the Holy Spirit directed the authors so that the product was exactly the Word of God, it also preserved the cultural milieu in which it occurred.

Dick Dayton

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