Studies in Mark: a Merciful Deed on the Sabbath

Mark 3:7‑12  •  17 min. read  •  grade level: 11
14.-A Merciful Deed on the Sabbath
“And he entered again into the synagogue; and there was a man there which had his hand withered.1 And they watched him whether he would heal him on the sabbath day; that they might accuse him. And he saith unto the man that had his hand withered,2 Stand forth.3 And he saith unto them, Is it lawful on the sabbath day to do good, or to do harm?4 to save a5 life, or to kill? But they held their peace6 And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved7 at the hardening of their heart, he saith unto the man, Stretch forth thy hand. And he stretched it forth; and his hand was restored. And the Pharisees went8 out, and straightway with the Herodians took counsel9 against him, how they might destroy him” (3:1 -6, R. V.).
In the cornfields the lowly Servant of Jehovah, by the vindication of His followers from the groundless charge made against them by the Pharisees, declared that He had supreme authority over the sabbath. The record of this declaration by the Son of man is immediately succeeded, in all three of the Synoptical Gospels, by the account of the miraculous restoration, on another sabbath, of the withered hand of the man in the synagogue. Whether the latter event followed the former in immediate chronological sequence cannot be definitely ascertained from the sacred history, and this point may therefore be regarded as one of no importance in the scheme of the Gospels.
It is, however, of the deepest interest to observe that the two incidents are brought together by three of the Evangelists, and thus constitute an epoch in the Galilaean ministry of our Lord. At this juncture the truth of the gospel broke away from Judaism. For herein it is shown how the teaching and practice of Jesus came into direct collision with the teaching and practice of the Jews in regard of one of the most salient of the outward features of their religion—the observance of the sabbath. In this particular, as in others, the Jews had rendered the law of God inoperative by their traditions. The Lord, by exposing this departure from the spirit of their ancient oracles, and the evil tendencies of their beliefs, aroused their hostility and censure. The two incidents may be regarded from this point of view as forming a double witness (1) to the apostasy of the Jews in their manner of observing the sabbath—that characteristic ordinance committed to the chosen people—and (2) to the wise and faithful testimony to the truth delivered by Jehovah's Servant in the face of Pharisaic gainsaying and rancor. And while both occurrences show the persistent zeal exercised by the Lord's enemies to prove Him a sabbath-breaker, they also show how able the Lord was to confound their schemes and to discern the evil motives concealed beneath the cloak of piety.
The Lord went into a synagogue on the sabbath. It is not clear whether this was or was not the synagogue at Capernaum where He had already performed miracles. But when the Pharisees and scribes who were assembled there saw amongst the congregation a man whose hand (the right, as Luke the physician, tells us) was shrunken and useless they suspected that the Master might heal the afflicted man. Thoroughly opposed to Him as they were, their unspoken thoughts by this conjecture paid tribute to the unfailing compassion of Jesus for whatever weakness and suffering crossed His pathway. But it is patent that the fact of His being good and doing good, which they inwardly acknowledged, caused them to hate Him and to seek to destroy Him. Imbued with this sinister desire they eyed the Lord narrowly, hoping that out of His active beneficence which they anticipated they might concoct some charge which would bring Him under the jurisdiction of the law.
Jesus knew their machinations (Luke 6:88But he knew their thoughts, and said to the man which had the withered hand, Rise up, and stand forth in the midst. And he arose and stood forth. (Luke 6:8)), but was not to be diverted out of His course of “doing good.” He bade the afflicted man to rise and stand out in the midst in sight of the whole company. Then the Lord, desirous of awakening the dormant consciences of the Pharisees and scribes to a sense of their own guilty motives, asked them, “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath or to do harm? to save life or to kill?” (Mark, Luke).10 To this piercing question, which exposed the hidden sophistries of their minds, they had no reply, and were dumb before Him. They had reasoned within themselves that, since the commandment of God forbade all work on the sabbath, Jesus, by healing the withered hand, would be working, and therefore breaking the sabbath. But the Lord's words put the matter on a different plane altogether. The question was not, as they supposed, one between activity and passivity; it was between doing good and doing harm, between saving a life and destroying a life by refraining from saving it. The law of God was given for the repression of evil, not for the repression of good. “There is none good save one, that is, God,” and it is inconceivable that He, “the Goodness of goodness,” would promulgate a law which would prevent the doing of good. Indeed to refrain from doing good when opportunity is offered is to display unlikeness to God. “Whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him” (1 John 3:1717But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? (1 John 3:17))?
Thus then did the Lord, by the presentation of the truth, seek, first of all, to heal the diseased minds of His enemies in the synagogue, but was hindered by their unbelief. The entrance of His words would have illuminated their dark hearts; but as the Prophet of Jehovah surveyed the congregation, His omniscient eyes marked not only the frowning brow and furtive glance but the hardened hearts and minds refusing to accept the truth. The zeal for God which “consumed” the Righteous Servant drew forth a momentary flash of that “wrath of the Lamb” from which the potentates of this world shall vainly seek to be sheltered in a future day (Rev. 6:15-1715And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; 16And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: 17For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand? (Revelation 6:15‑17)). But the Lord was not there to judge. Hence He regarded their desperate condition with sorrow and grief. “He looked round11 about on them with anger, being grieved at the hardening of their heart.” Then addressing the disabled man, He bade him stretch out his hand. With implicit trust in the words of the prophet of Nazareth the man essayed to do so, and found the limb restored to its natural strength and suppleness.
Such a result could not be gainsaid. The miracle was performed in a public place in the presence of a company of witnesses, consisting not of ignorant and credulous peasants only, if at all, but also of educated Pharisees and scribes who were only too anxious to deny the cure altogether, if possible, or at any rate to raise objections to its genuine character. They did not, however, attempt to deny the miracle, but leaving the synagogue they sought their rivals, the Herodians, and laying aside their mutual animosities, the two parties conferred together that they might find the most expeditious method of destroying Jesus.
In the brief outline of the life and ministry of our Lord which we possess in the Gospels, it is striking to observe what a large proportion, comparatively speaking, of His recorded service was performed upon the sabbath. There are, altogether, about twenty-six cases of healing specifically mentioned in the Gospels, and of these, seven are stated to have been executed on the sabbath day. These seven cases are—
Other instances are referred to in general terms as happening on the seventh day. It may also be observed that the Lord commenced His public ministry at Nazareth on the sabbath; and that He was in the sepulcher during the whole of the sabbath after His crucifixion—that “high day,” as it was called. Attention has already been drawn to the fact that the incident in the cornfields occurred on the sabbath.
Much of this service was rendered in synagogues where it was customary for the law and the prophets to be read in the hearing of those assembled. The acts of mercy therefore, in addition to the direct benefit which they conferred upon those immediately concerned, formed instructive examples of the blessing for man which would characterize the coming kingdom even then preached by the Servant of Jehovah. This blessing was not to be effected without the energy of divine love. And divine love had charged itself to remove the presence of sin and its fruits; nor could it rest until this was accomplished for the whole creation. As the Lord said on another occasion, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work” (John 5:1717But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto, and I work. (John 5:17)). The instance here of the healing of the withered arm was a sample of the “powers of the world to come,” and was but a single instance of what shall eventually be effected for the whole earth.
Looked at truly, the presence of this sufferer in the synagogue was undeniable evidence that the sabbath could not be rightly kept. For at the beginning of the world's history, when Jehovah rested on the seventh day from His works and blessed it and hallowed it, the earth was unblemished, and declared the glory of God. In an Eden unsullied by man's disobedience Jehovah could, in that primeval sabbath, commune with Adam. The entrance of sin destroyed these conditions, its presence in the world being incompatible with the rest of God.12
At Sinai the people of Israel were enjoined to “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy.” There were to be no sinful desires, no sinful actions, no sinful associations. They were to regard the claims of Jehovah upon them and observe the day to Him, distinguishing it from the six days by abstaining from all manner of work, i.e., all labor usually undertaken for personal gain or gratification or comfort.
Where was this sanctity in the Galilaean synagogue? It is true there was a cessation of manual labor in the town. The fishing-boats rode idly at anchor or were drawn up on the strand, the fields and vineyards were deserted, the bazaars were silent, and a decorous company assembled for prayer and reading of the Scriptures. This man saw, and judged what a pious observance of the sabbath was there.
But Jesus saw more and differently. He saw a man there doing no manner of work truly, for his right hand was robbed of its cunning. If this affliction was not a direct infliction from God, as in the case of the renegade king and of the false shepherd of Israel (1 Kings. 13:4; Zech. 11:1717Woe to the idol shepherd that leaveth the flock! the sword shall be upon his arm, and upon his right eye: his arm shall be clean dried up, and his right eye shall be utterly darkened. (Zechariah 11:17)), it was certainly the result of sin, whatever the secondary causes may have been. The human hand, by its flexibility and manifold utility, differentiates the physical organization of man from the ape-like animals which superficially resemble him. Its uselessness in this case demonstrated the cruel effects of sin upon mankind.
But the Savior saw even more. He looked beneath the cloak of formal piety and hypocrisy, and discerned a fountain of corruption. Evil thoughts and desires were in the assembly. Those who considered that to heal a man on the sabbath was to violate sanctity had no scruples about holding a council on that day for the destruction of Jesus. The Cain-thirst for innocent blood was there. The professed sabbath-keepers were hating their Messiah without a cause, and had already murdered Him—in their hearts. Was this remembering, the sabbath day to keep it holy? All this and more the Lord saw, as He looked round on them with anger, being grieved at the hardening of their hearts. He surveyed them in the spirit that at His final entry into Jerusalem wept over the guilty city.
Similarly, we read of divine grief in the Old Testament when in antediluvian days “the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart” (Gen. 6:5, 65And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. (Genesis 6:5‑6)). Again He said of the Israelites in the wilderness, “Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways” (Psa. 95:1010Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways: (Psalm 95:10)). A SOLEMN LESSON There is in this incident, beside other instruction, a solemn lesson for all time as to the utter futility of the mere outward observance of a divine ordinance. The same truth is expressed many times elsewhere and in many ways. But it is here associated with the keeping of the sabbath and not with the offering of sacrifice or the repetition of prayers, and it may be well to state the principle which seems to be involved. Here, on the part of the Pharisees, was a great display of zeal, ostensibly for the honor of Jehovah's sabbath. They appeared to be desirous above all things that its holiness should be preserved inviolate, so much so that they regarded the plucking of a few ears of corn and the healing of a withered hand as infractions of God's law. But what was the truth? They were all the while furiously angry without cause, hating their Messiah and persecuting the benefactor of their fellows. It is evident that their position was one of gross deceit, though while they might deceive other men and even themselves, they could not deceive God. And this was the true nature of Pharisaism, as the Gospels abundantly testify. It is well, however, to remember that this hypocrisy arose from the natural tendencies of the human heart, and for this reason all religious persons are liable to fall into the same unreality in their devotional exercises. And what at first may be no more than an occasional lapse, becomes eventually a settled habit. We are therefore to regard the exposure here made of the inward evil of these religious professors as a serious warning for the present day.
It should be comparatively easy to discern that the exercise of public Christian worship and the celebration of the Lord's Supper are liable to the danger of unreality—a punctilious performance of these rites being accompanied by a complete absence of spiritual intention. And it is commonly and rightly understood that this failure to present to God “worship in spirit and in truth” is especially to be feared when that worship is connected with an ornate ceremonialism and a prescribed liturgy. The aesthetic ritual may proceed most agreeably to the cultivated taste, but what if the soul of the worshipper be out of harmony with its God?
Most admit the possibility and even the prevalence in Christendom of this spiritual pretension. But is it not too often forgotten that the danger equally exists, however simple the external forms of worship may be? In our Lord's day it was found in the synagogue as much as in the temple. Nowadays hollow formalism frequents both the fretted aisles of venerable cathedrals and the whitewashed rooms of our obscure by-ways. Reality may be as seriously lacking in the simple singing of a “common meter” hymn as in the classical rendering of an anthem accompanied by trained choral and instrumental harmonies. The delusion lies in the false assumption that the negation of all outward ceremonies provides a certain safeguard against unspiritual worship and prayer. The truth is that the presence or the absence of an appointed ritual will not exclude from the worshippers thoughts which are evil and hostile to the Savior, though it is likely enough that these thoughts may assume the disguise of religious zeal for the readier deception of the unwatchful, and of such as, like those in the synagogue, have not learned the real nature of their own sinful hearts.
What are we to understand by the phrase used here— “the hardening of their heart"? Does it imply that the hearts of the audience in the synagogue were naturally incapable of appreciating the cogent and irrefragable evidence afforded by the works of Jesus to the divine nature of His person and mission? or does it imply that they, knowing otherwise, resolutely refused to recognize the value of this evidence? In other words, is the allusion to their inborn or to their willful obdurateness of heart?
The word πώρωσιςtranslated “hardening” or “hardness” signifies a state of callousness, and, considered in connection with the other instances of its use in the New Testament, seems to specify the deplorable state of insensibility of the Jews to the words and works of the kingdom which were placed before them by their Messiah—a condition of indifference which became intensified by their neglect of the testimony to the gospel.
Looking at the other occurrences of the word and its cognate forms, we find that it is applied to the Jews, to the Gentiles, and to the disciples of our Lord to indicate their want of receptivity of the truth. In the Epistle to the Romans, the apostle uses it in reference to the rejection of the gospel by the mass of the Jews. “That which Israel seeketh for, that he obtained not; but the election obtained it, and the rest were hardened.” “A hardening in part had befallen Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in” (Rom. 11:7, 257What then? Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded (Romans 11:7)
25For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. (Romans 11:25)
). Again, in another epistle, the apostle, speaking of the same subject, says, “Their minds were hardened” (2 Cor. 3:14).13
The same term is used to express the natural irresponsiveness of the Gentiles also to what is of God: “Being darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardening of their heart” (Eph. 4:1818Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: (Ephesians 4:18)).
The word is not found in the Synoptical Gospels except in Mark. He uses it here, and also in reference to the disciples: “They understood not concerning the loaves, but their heart was hardened” (Mark 6:5252For they considered not the miracle of the loaves: for their heart was hardened. (Mark 6:52)). And again, he reports the words of Jesus to the dull apostles, “Why reason ye, because ye have no bread? Do ye not yet perceive, neither understand? Have ye your heart hardened” (Mark 8:1717And when Jesus knew it, he saith unto them, Why reason ye, because ye have no bread? perceive ye not yet, neither understand? have ye your heart yet hardened? (Mark 8:17))?
In the above instances the activity of the will in opposition to the truth is not necessarily implied. The term appears rather to point to that prevailing state of moral stupidity among the Jews which failed to perceive what was evidently of God.
When the apostle in the Hebrews is referring to the willful obstinacy of the Israelites in the wilderness he uses a different word: “Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness” (Heb. 3:8, 15; 4:78Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness: (Hebrews 3:8)
15While it is said, To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation. (Hebrews 3:15)
7Again, he limiteth a certain day, saying in David, To day, after so long a time; as it is said, To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts. (Hebrews 4:7)
). And without presuming to dogmatize as to its finer shades of meaning it is suggested that the word σχληρύνω14 and its derivatives is employed to denote that definite resistance on man's part which deliberately blocks up the heart to exclude the light of God—as the Lord said, “Ye will not come unto me that ye may have life” (John 5:4040And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life. (John 5:40)).
It must be added that the former word, πώρωσις, occurs in one other connection not vet mentioned. John uses it in his Gospel with reference to the solemn judicial process which is exercised by God upon those who fill up their measure of guilt in repeated refusal of divine testimony. The Evangelist, speaking of those who had not believed on Jesus although they had witnessed so many miracles by Him, wrote, “For this cause they could not believe, for that Isaiah said again, He hath blinded their eyes and hardened their heart; lest they should see with their eyes and perceive with their heart, and should turn, and I should heal them” (John 12:39, 4039Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, 40He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them. (John 12:39‑40); citation from Isa. 6:9, 109And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. 10Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed. (Isaiah 6:9‑10)). This judicial sentence was not pronounced upon the nation until the divine patience was exhausted with those who stumbled at the stumbling-stone, ignoring the Messiah sent to them (Acts 13:2727For they that dwell at Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they knew him not, nor yet the voices of the prophets which are read every sabbath day, they have fulfilled them in condemning him. (Acts 13:27)).
[W. J. H.]