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This is a sad little story, because we see sad little men rejecting their great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. They have made void the word of God through their tradition (cf. Mk 7:13). In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ early confrontations with the Pharisees come quickly, one after the other. This particular account is where the water boils over.
First, they questioned why Jesus shares a meal with such “worldly” and “disreputable” people (2:15-17). They don’t ask Jesus; they ask His disciples (Mk 2:16). We’re not sure why the Pharisees don’t approach Jesus directly. But we can guess, knowing ourselves, that they’re a bit tentative and unsure of themselves. Perhaps, they thought, “It’ll be better to take the indirect route and cast doubt on His credentials to His followers.”
Jesus, ever the polite diplomat, answers immediately with a burst of sarcasm. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk 2:17). This is a warning shot across the bow, and it’s the first direct contact Jesus has with the Pharisees in Mark’s gospel. This is clearly an adversarial relationship from the very beginning. Jesus didn’t mince words when it came to self-righteous and blasphemous legalism. Matthew preserved another bit of the story, in which Christ verbally backhanded the Pharisees (“Go and learn what this means …” Mt 9:13) with a quote from Hosea 6:6.
The next episode follows right on the heels of this discussion (2:18-22). The Pharisees1 demand to know why Jesus’ disciples don’t fast. Jesus responded and prophesied His own death (2:19-20). He then explained the Old Covenant (the old garment) cannot be patched up like an old sweater, or jerry-rigged to accommodate the New Covenant; “new wine is for fresh wineskins” (2:22). We’re not sure how much of this the Pharisees understood, and Mark didn’t tell us. But, I doubt it was a pleasant conversation.
The final episode is the alleged Sabbath violation (2:23-28). Jesus cited a Scriptural precedent for violating the strict letter of the law under emergency circumstances (2:25-26). He then claimed a divine and Messianic title (“son of man”) and declared He was “lord even of the sabbath” (2:28).
Mark gives us these incidents one after the other, and the reader is left almost reeling as this freight train of hostility and opposition springs forth from seemingly nowhere. This early enmity comes to a crescendo with the Pharisees storming out of the synagogue and colluding with their enemies to kill Jesus (3:6).
The Confrontation in the Synagogue
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. And they watched him, to see whether he would heal him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him (Mk 3:1-2).
Again, Mark doesn’t tell us who “they” are, but the context assures us it is the Pharisees.2 Why is the man there? Is this a coincidence? We know the Pharisees are watching all the time,3 waiting, their little black notebooks at the ready, cellphone cameras on standby—anxious to gather evidence against Jesus. It is tempting to see the man as a prop, a poor sucker planted there as bait. We don’t know whether that is the case. But, we do know Jesus is being set up. If the Pharisees didn’t plant the poor man there, we can be sure they were at least “pleased” he was there.
Ironically, the Pharisees deny Jesus the right to do good on the Sabbath, while they actively plot to do evil!4
This little episode is about more than proof for Jesus’ divinity. It is about this single miracle as one of a series of signs and wonders which announced the kingdom of God to those who had ears to hear. The prophets wrote that, when God returned for His people, the blind would receive sight, the deaf would hear, the lame will leap for joy and “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing” (Isa 35:5-6, 10). Christ appealed to these texts as proof that He was, indeed, the Messiah who had come to bring His people into the figurative promised land of eternal rest (Lk 4:16-21; 7:18-23; cf. Heb 4:1-11).
Rather than ponder the implications of Jesus’ teaching coupled with these signs and wonders, the Pharisees lie in wait in the synagogue like impotent little spiders, weaving a pathetic web of trickery. The man with the withered hand may have been a plant, or just somebody who happened to be there, but one thing is certain—the Pharisees didn’t care about him at all. He was a prop. He was nothing. They didn’t care if Jesus did heal him; they just wanted the evidence for a trial. Like serial killers who take genuine civic pride in obeying the speed limit, these legalists have it all backward.
And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent (Mk 3:3-4).
Jesus knew everything (cf. Jn 2:24-25; Lk 5:6-7; Lk 6:8, etc.). He knew what the Pharisees were up to. He did not run away to fight another day. He felt discretion was no valor at all. He asked an open and rhetorical question designed to unmask their legalistic and blasphemous tradition about the Sabbath. This is the only time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus initiates a healing without being approached. Clearly, He decided to make a decisive stand here.5
Nobody answered. Nobody said a word. Why not? Jesus had what we now call “command presence.” People listened to Him. He taught with authority (Mk 1:27). I suspect the Pharisees couldn’t have spoken even if they’d wanted to. Mark recorded another, similar incident later in his Gospel (Mk 12:34). They are speechless before this teacher who had such passion, such presence and such intrinsic authority.
What does Jesus mean by asking, “to save life or to kill?” Some commentators believe Jesus was referring to the Pharisees’ own intentions towards Him (cf. 3:6).6 If that is so, no wonder they dared not answer. “While Jesus is preparing to do good, they are plotting his death! Which is the real Sabbath violation?”7
And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored (Mk 3:5).
This is an instantaneous healing, and a true miracle. Jesus does not appeal to God for healing; He simply performs the action Himself. This is very, very different than what the OT prophets did (cf. 1 Kgs 13:6). Jesus is a prophet, but He is as qualitatively different from His Old Covenant counterparts as a glowworm is from a floodlight. He is divine. They were not.
What about the Pharisees’ hearts upset Jesus so much? Their inability to answer His question? Their callousness by using this poor man as a prop for their own wicked ends? Their inability and unwillingness to face the implications of His own teaching and the signs and wonders He performed? Perhaps it was all of this.
The word is usually rendered as “hardness” or “stubbornness” here. Hardness implies they are spiritually insensitive (e.g. Tyndale, “blindness”). Stubbornness gives the sense of stiff-necked inflexibility; they are wilfully rebellious. The NEB translates it as “obstinate stupidity,” which is a delightfully appropriate phrase!
Yes, this miracle is more proof for Jesus’ divinity. But, that is not why Mark wrote it. His didactic purpose is to highlight the scribes’ and Pharisees’ growing opposition in the face of Jesus’ explicit preaching, teaching and divine signs. These miracles are proof that “the kingdom of God is come unto you” (Mt 12:28). People are healed. Demons are cast out. Jesus, by the Spirit of God, has bound Satan and is plundering his house (Mk 3:27). What must this mean!?
The Pharisees don’t care what it means. They have their evidence. The healed man is irrelevant. He’s served his purpose. Away with him! They ignore him, like some men would ignore a filthy dog (cf. Jn 9:34). Jesus is all that matters; not the implications of His teaching, but the evidence for His alleged “blasphemy.”
Throughout His ministry, Jesus shows a deliberate contempt for the oral tradition which “fenced” the Old Covenant law. The Pharisees feellt this is a fundamental betrayal of orthodoxy, and act in fury out of righteous indignation. They are sincere, but they are sincerely wrong. Jesus, however, is not moved by pettiness or or self-righteousness. He is filled with righteous anger.
The Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him (Mk 3:6).
The “Herodians” were widely castigated as liberal compromisers.8 They were not devout. It says something that the Pharisees sought to form an alliance with these men—all in order to kill the Lord of glory. This is their furious response to a whole host of escalating confrontations.9 Their blood is up. Jesus is a blasphemer who despises the traditions of the fathers. He has now violated the Sabbath twice, and they have the evidence to prove it! Jesus must be destroyed—the law demands it (Ex 31:14-17)! Surely, they reason, God agrees with their zeal …
So, off they go, in a huff. Jesus has righteous anger, these Pharisees have self-righteous resentment.10 The Kingdom of God has broken into human history. The proof is here—behold the signs and wonders! The Messiah is here—behold His teaching! The legalistic externalism of the Pharisees is condemned. True worship flows from the heart and is proven by devoted action (cf. 1 Sam 15:22-23).
This little miracle proves Jesus’ deity, but it is a sad account. Confronted with their Savior, the Pharisees plot His death. The Apostle Paul was right:
For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets which are read every sabbath, fulfilled these by condemning him (Acts 13:27).
1 The Greek doesn’t specify who came to Jesus; it is simply a third-person plural verb (ἔρχονται). The closest antecedent are the scribes of the Pharisees (2:17). It is reasonable to conclude the Pharisees asked Jesus this question.
2 See Walter W. Wessel (Mark, in EBC, vol. 8 [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984], 639) and Mark Strauss (Mark, in ZECNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014], 147).
3 The verb here is imperfect (παρετήρουν αὐτὸν), which gives the general sense of an unfolding, continual action in the past. I think the NASB did well to render it as a descriptive imperfect (“they were watching Him …”).
4 Mark Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, in PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 98.
5 Strauss (Mark, 147).
6 Edwards (Mark, 100) and William Hendriksen, Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1975), 116.
7 Strauss (Mark, 148).
8 For more on the Herodians, see H. W. Hoehner, “Herodian Dynasty,” 5, in Dictionary of the New Testament: Backgrounds, ed. Craig Evans and Stanley Porter (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), 493-494.
9 See William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, in NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 121-122.
10 Hendriksen (Mark, 117).