Mark closes his grouping of five confrontations between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day with a familiar scene. Jesus and his disciples again find themselves in a synagogue on the Sabbath and are joined by a man in need of miraculous healing. Unlike previous encounters, however, Jesus is the one who questions the Pharisees. Jesus presses them with his question, “Is it permitted to do good or to do harm; to save a life or to kill?” The rhetorical force makes Jesus’ answer obvious, but the Pharisees would have likely replied, “Saving a life is an urgent matter; if it can wait, it can wait. The Sabbath is more important.”
According to Old Testament Law, anyone found in violation of Sabbath rest was to be put to death. Jesus is not denying the importance of the Sabbath or defying the enforcement of it; rather, he is questioning what the purpose of the Sabbath is. The Pharisees were not utterly heartless in their enforcement of the Sabbath. A commonly held interpretation stated “whenever there is doubt whether life is in danger this takes precedence over the Sabbath.”1 However, in their zeal for upholding the law, they “had become insensitive both to the purposes of God and to the sufferings of men.”2
Note the escalation of opposition against Jesus over the course of these five encounters (2:1–3:6). In the first, the Pharisees questioned Jesus when he claimed to heal the man’s sins and called him a blasphemer. Still, the miracle is met with celebration and worship. In the last, Jesus questioned and then defied the Pharisees’ guidelines on the Sabbath. The religious leaders then “went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”
By choosing to heal the man in defiance of pharisaical tradition, Jesus poses himself not merely as a dissenting interlocutor but as a counter-authority. In their eyes, Jesus could not have been reasoned with, only dealt with. Here we see the drawing of the battle lines and the measuring of force. On the one side, the Pharisees ally with the Herodians, tying their traditional religious authority with political and military authority. In short, they choose worldly force. Jesus meets them with his authority over demons and diseases, and will soon choose his own allies — twelve ragtag, hodge-podge sinners.
Mark 3:7–12 echoes 1:14–20 and serves the same purpose, introducing the reader to a new phase in Jesus’ ministry. Mark reports that a great crowd follows Jesus. They are great only in number — all the sick, unclean, possessed, and poor in a 120-mile radius from Galilee flock to the one they’ve heard heals with a word. The great multitude signifies Gentiles hearing and coming to Jesus, including those from Edom (southeast of Judea), beyond the Jordan (to the east), and Tyre and Sidon (to the north).
Again, demons attempt to disclose Jesus’ true identity. By addressing Jesus as the Son of God, the demons might have hoped to execute authority over him or disarm him of power, in line with the typical ancient notion of controlling deities by knowing and speaking their names.3 Here, too, Jesus opposes and triumphs over opposing spiritual authority.
As Mark progresses into the latter part of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, he fills out several key characteristics of Jesus’ ministry: mercy, authority, and opposition. Various groups are getting a clearer picture of who Jesus is. The crowds see Jesus as a miracle worker. The demons see Jesus as the Son of God, which is their arch nemesis. The Pharisees see Jesus as a threat, though they’re still working out what kind of threat (Mark 3:20, 6:1). The disciples see him as their rabbi, but question more than anyone else, “Who is this guy?”
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False religion often grows out of the idolatry of power. Followers of the Living God are just as prone to fall into false religion as pagans. The Old Testament recounts Israel’s cycle of suffering oppression, throwing off their oppressors, growing corrupt in their prosperity, and becoming oppressors themselves. Though God had called them to be a light to the nations, a force of good and a source of justice for the whole world, they instead saw the way the other nations worked and chose to follow suit.
The beauty of the gospel recognizes that if we are united to Christ, we have already been delivered from all oppression — both the oppression we inflict and the oppression we suffer. Left to ourselves, and in light of the idolatry of power that dominates our world, we are all naturally inclined to follow the same mentality — one that sees other people as objects and seeks to protect ourselves no matter the cost to other people. Titus 3:3 expresses this mentality well: “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.”
If God is not just, or if he is simply uninterested in our affairs, the only solution to suffering oppression is to respond on the same level — to overthrow oppressors, and inevitably become them. This was so for the Pharisees. In the name of holiness they created a system to establish themselves as a religious authority over and against the Herodians and Roman occupiers, and the Greeks before them. Yet, their religion ultimately became a weapon they wielded against their own people. Jesus calls them out in Matthew 23:4 “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.”
As Christians increasingly find themselves in positions of social and political vulnerability, we must avoid the idolatry of power. Christ does not operate on the same level of power dynamics. Jesus brings those who are ignored, infirmed, and marginalized before those who are important, powerful — and exalts the weak to humble the strong. This he most gloriously displays in himself on the cross. The Almighty King, Jesus Christ, took on all the guilt of sin we incur and all the weight of its brokenness under which we suffer. No longer driven by self-preservation, Christians forfeit their pursuit of oppressing others to follow a new paradigm.
The gospel doesn’t end there. The same stroke that frees us from being oppressors also frees us from the oppression we face, whether spiritual or physical. Paul serves as a shining example of this freedom. Once eager to persecute Christians as the “Pharisee of Pharisees,” Jesus’ grace changed everything. The apostle committed himself to sharing the mercy of Christ. He believed that unity with Christ was so powerful that he regarded all the sufferings the world could throw at him as “light momentary affliction.” (2 Cor 4:17). It provided a peace that surpassed understanding (Phil 4:7). Though Paul still experienced unjust oppression, even unto martyrdom, he truly felt the healing mercy of Christ and never returned to weaponizing religion for his own power.
That same unfathomable peace is available to believers today. We are free to abandon the paradigm of false religion we once lived according to and instead live up to our created intent, being beacons of truth, justice, and mercy to a world hardwired for oppression. Furthermore, we are free to cry out to God with our fears and wait for his deliverance. Whether God intervenes to alleviate our present suffering or not — and knowing that God delights to show mercy, and really did heal the man with the withered hand, we really can hope in present alleviation — our greatest hope rests in the deliverance Christ has already accomplished. Let us find peace in Jesus’ work as we wait for him to finally cancel the curse of sin and death and restore his people in the new heavens and new earth.
1 William Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, NICNT. 123n12.
2 Lane, Gospel, 123–124.
3 Lane, Gospel, 130.