Rules and Relationship

A sermon on Mark 2:18-3:6 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA 7/11/99

Why are you here at Community Bible Church this morning? Today is clear and sunny, with temperatures in the mid-70's; we only have four to five weekend days like this in a year. Why are you here instead of playing golf, or hiking in the woods, or even lounging on your bed? What brings you here this Sunday?

Most of us have asked that question on one occasion or another. Sometimes we ask it of our parents: "Mom, do we have to go to church this morning?"

We parents are often guilty of answering this question in simplistic ways:

But the passage in Mark we consider this morning suggests that all those answers are wrong. In these verses, the religious authorities accuse Jesus of violating their regulations regarding worship. They, in effect, are saying:

Jesus here shows us that this conception of religion is wrong. Christianity does not consist of a set of rules we obey. Christianity is not characterized by a list of do's and don'ts. Instead, Christianity is a dynamic, joyful relationship with the Lord of the Universe. Our religious activities -- our fasts, our attendance at services, our foregoing temporal pleasures -- have no value unless they build that relationship, unless they are a true expression of humility before God and dependence on Him.

Turn with me in your Bibles to Mark chapter 2. We will consider Mark 2:18-3:6 today, but I will begin reading at verse 13, because the theme of the entire section is stated in verse 17. As we read, listen for the contrast Jesus makes between his teaching and the Pharisees regulations of religious observance.

13 And He went out again by the seashore; and all the multitude were coming to Him, and He was teaching them. 14 And as He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax office, and He *said to him, "Follow Me!" And he rose and followed Him. 15 And it came about that He was reclining at the table in his house, and many tax-gatherers and sinners were dining with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many of them, and they were following Him. 16 And when the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax-gatherers, they began saying to His disciples, "Why is He eating and drinking with tax-gatherers and sinners?" 17 And hearing this, Jesus *said to them, "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

18 And John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and they *came and *said to Him, "Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?" 19 And Jesus said to them, "While the bridegroom is with them, the attendants of the bridegroom do not fast, do they? So long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 "But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. 21 "No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear results. 22 "And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and the skins as well; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins."

23 And it came about that He was passing through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples began to make their way along while picking the heads of grain. 24 And the Pharisees were saying to Him, "See here, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?" 25 And He *said to them, "Have you never read what David did when he was in need and became hungry, he and his companions: 26 how he entered the house of God in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the consecrated bread, which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests, and he gave it also to those who were with him?" 27 And He was saying to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. 28 "Consequently, the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath."

1 And He entered again into a synagogue; and a man was there with a withered hand. 2 And they were watching Him to see if He would heal him on the Sabbath, in order that they might accuse Him. 3 And He *said to the man with the withered hand, "Rise and come forward!" 4 And He *said to them, "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to kill?" But they kept silent. 5 And after looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He *said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 And the Pharisees went out and immediately began taking counsel with the Herodians against Him, as to how they might destroy Him. (Mark 2:13-3:6 NASB)

Look again at 2:17: "I did not come to call the righteous but sinners!" In other words, Jesus says, "If you think you are ok before God, there is nothing I can say to you. I offer you forgiveness, I offer you good news -- but you must acknowledge your sinfulness in order to receive this forgiveness!"

You see, Jesus is saying that self-righteousness is the fundamental sin. The Pharisees believed they could make themselves acceptable to God through their external obedience to a set of rules. This belief kept them from rejoicing in the receipt of the free gift of forgiveness Jesus offered.

You have noted that there are four incidents discussed here, during which the Pharisees' opposition to Jesus intensifies. In the first incident (2:13-17, which we discussed last time), Jesus parties with his new disciple Levi Matthew and his friends. The scribes of the Pharisees can't imagine why Jesus would eat with such rabble; Jesus replies that he has come to call people like these, people who know they are sinners and acknowledge their need for forgiveness.

The three incidents described in today's passage relate disputes concerning the Pharisees rules regarding fasting and the Sabbath. So we will consider the true reason for fasting, and the true reason for the Sabbath. Along the way we will learn about the true nature of our relationship to Jesus.

The True Reason for Fasting

Look again at Mark 2:18-22. This incident may take place the same day as Matthew's party. Verse 18 begins, "And John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting." This may mean they were fasting the same day as Matthew's party, and thus were offended not only because Jesus was associating with sinners, but also because he was doing this on what should have been a fast day.

The Pharisees in the first century would fast two days a week (see the brag of the Pharisee in Jesus' parable recorded in Luke 18:9-14); they therefore looked down upon anyone who did less. But note that it is not only the Pharisees who question Jesus' practice; John's disciples also are confused. John's preaching emphasized the need for repentance; presumably these disciples were practicing fasting as an outward symbol of that inner repentance. Jesus too preaches the need to repent, so why are his disciples not fasting like John's?

First, note that Jesus is not opposed to fasting. On the contrary, Jesus himself fasted for 40 days in the wilderness prior to the beginning of his public ministry (Matt 4:2). Furthermore, in the Sermon on the Mount, which took place during this period in his ministry, Jesus discusses fasting:

16 "When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18 NIV)

Jesus condemns the hypocrites for trying to gain the approval of men through fasting, but he explicitly says that God will reward the one who fasts in secret. As in the rest of this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is elucidating the true meaning of an Old Testament religious practice that had been distorted by the Pharisees.

What does the Old Testament say about fasting?

There is no explicit command in the Old Testament for regular fasting, although in one case an ambiguous statement was interpreted that way. When discussing the Day of Atonement, Leviticus 16:29 states that the people are to "deny themselves," or "humble their souls," or "afflict their souls" on this day. Fasting became part of the Israelites attempt to fulfill this command.

But regardless of whether or not God intended the Day of Atonement to be an annual fast, the Old Testament provides us with numerous instances of fasting. Most often, fasts by individuals or groups occur in response to a military defeat or national threat (for example, 2 Chronicles 20 and Esther 4) or as an accompaniment to repentance of gross, frequently corporate, sin (Daniel 9, for example). In every sincere case, fasting accompanies throwing oneself or one's people on the mercy of the Lord, acknowledging that the ones fasting are sinners, undeserving of the Lord's favor.

The prophet Joel summarizes this idea. After proclaiming that the day of God's judgment is coming, he writes:

The day of the LORD is indeed great and very awesome, And who can endure it? 12 "Yet even now," declares the LORD, "Return to Me with all your heart, And with fasting, weeping, and mourning; 13 And rend your heart and not your garments. "Now return to the LORD your God, For He is gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness, And relenting of evil. 14 Who knows whether He will not turn and relent, And leave a blessing behind Him?

Note verse 13: "Rend your heart and not you garments." The Israelites would rip their clothes as a sign of contrition; God says through Joel, "I don't care about your outward sign of contrition -- I want a contrite heart! I want you to change on the inside!" So Joel is not calling for the Israelites to go through the motions of a fast, but to return to God with all their heart.

Therefore, the true fast is an outward sign of an inward change. The true fast is a sign of a humbled heart, a sign of dependence on the God of the covenant. God never intended the fast to be a ritual that one engaged in to earn His favor. Quite the opposite: the fast is of no value unless the heart is contrite.

Do you see how this relates to Mark chapter 2? A true fast is exactly what Jesus calls for in Mark 2:17, where he says, in effect: "I came to call those who know they are sick, I came to call those who know they are sinners to repentance. So humble yourselves!"

The Pharisees turned this around completely. By making the fast into a formal rule for regular observance, they made keeping the fast a source of pride instead of a sign of humility. They thought they were better than others because they fasted, while the true reason for fasting is to display a broken and contrite heart.

The True Nature of our Relationship to Jesus

But it is interesting to note that Jesus does not argue with his questioners about the true meaning of fasting. Perhaps this was in deference to the disciples of John among them, who presumably did understand that meaning, and were truly repentant. Instead, Jesus says:

19 While the bridegroom is with them, the attendants of the bridegroom do not fast, do they? So long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.

Jesus refers to himself as the bridegroom, and his disciples as attendants. For the Jews, a marriage meant a weeklong party. The couple would not leave the area and celebrate on their own; instead the couple and their friends and relatives would stay together partying.

So Jesus says our relationship with him is not to be characterized as all sadness and mourning, though there is a time for that. Instead, Jesus proclaims, "Here I am! The desire of all nations has come! I am the bridegroom; I offer forgiveness, freely! Come to the fountain of living water and drink! Rejoice!"

The Pharisees considered religion to consist of proving to God that they were better than others; they proved this by obeying a set of rules that limited their pleasure. They thought God would reward them for their asceticism. But Jesus here is saying, "You need not and cannot prove that you are good enough to enter my Kingdom. But I invite you! I offer you true joy, including forgiveness, including all of my own righteousness! I offer pleasures beyond what you can imagine -- the real pleasure of becoming what God intends man to be! There is a time for fasting, to help turn your thoughts to me in my absence, to repent when you fail: but now I'm here! Rejoice in my presence!"

Just so for us. All of us are tempted to be like the Pharisees: to consider Christian "duties" as undesirable activities we engage in, hoping to please God, hoping to prove to Him, to ourselves, and to others that we are better than others. But Jesus tells us that He accepts us by His grace; he tells us that in Him we are fully accepted by God already; he tells us that life with him is full of joy, that he will always give us way beyond what we have given up to follow him. Life with him is a feast, a celebration; life with him means receiving unconditional love from the king of the universe!

John Piper puts it this way:

Never, NEVER does God ask you to deny yourself a greater value for a lesser value. That's what sin is. On the contrary, always, ALWAYS, God calls us to surrender second-rate, fleeting, unsatisfying pleasures in order to obtain first-rate, eternal, satisfying pleasures.

So think again: Why did you come this morning? Did you come to fulfill a duty? Or did you come to rejoice with those redeemed by the blood of Christ? Did you come rejoicing in the perfect righteousness that is yours in Christ, in the declaration by God that you are his own adopted child?

Jesus summarizes these thoughts using a parable in verses 21 and 22:

"No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear results. 22 "And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and the skins as well; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins."

At this time, wine was stored not in bottles but in containers made of animal skin. The wine, still fermenting, would expand in the container. An old, dried out, brittle skin would burst if the expanding, fermenting wine was put inside it. A new skin, however, was flexible and pliable -- it would stretch to contain the new wine.

In context, the old wineskin represents the rule-based religion of the Pharisees. Such a religion is brittle, inflexible, unable to adjust to a dynamic relationship with Jesus.

The True Reason for the Sabbath

The section from 2:23 to 3:6 records the controversy about Jesus and his disciples violations of the Pharisees' Sabbath regulations. Just as the Pharisees criticized Jesus for not adhering to their rules regarding fasts, they also criticize him for violations of their Sabbath rules. So, like fasting, we need to ask: What is the purpose of the Sabbath?

We addressed this issue in February when studying Leviticus (see sermon). At that time we looked into not only the Sabbath day, but also the Sabbath year and the super-Sabbath year, the year of Jubilee (see sermon). We saw that the central message of the Sabbath is to cease work and depend on God for all one's sustenance. So the Sabbath is first and foremost a picture of our giving up trying to make ourselves worthy of entering God's presence, of our acknowledging that we can never live up to His standards, that we can never approach God on the basis of any accomplishment. The Sabbath pictures our depending upon God to declare us righteous, so that we might rest fully in Him. That is how we keep the Sabbath -- by resting fully in Him.

So do you see the irony in the Pharisees view of the Sabbath? As with fasting, they get the idea completely backwards. They thought: "We keep the Sabbath! How good we are! Surely God appreciates that!" Yet God's purpose in establishing the Sabbath is the opposite. In observing the Sabbath, we act out the idea that our work accomplishes nothing; we must depend on God for all things.

Let us see how these ideas work themselves out in today's passage. In 2:23-27, the disciples are walking through a field, picking the heads of wheat or barley, rubbing the chaff off with their hands, and then eating the grains. They are not stealing; Deuteronomy 23:25 explicitly allows such behavior, as long as the person only picks by hand. So the Pharisees accuse them not of stealing but of working on the Sabbath. Now, the Old Testament clearly prohibits the Israelites from working on the Sabbath; the Pharisees had defined the meaning of work to include picking a few grains of wheat with one's hands and rubbing off the chaff.

As with fasting, the Pharisees had taken a rich Old Testament concept and made it into a rigid rule, devoid of its original meaning. There is no reason why picking a few grains of wheat should have been considered work. But interestingly, once again Jesus does not challenge the rule itself. He could have said, "Really, this is not work! Think about the picture of the Sabbath! This doesn't violate that picture."

Instead, Jesus brings up an incident in the life of David. As recorded in 1 Samuel 21, David and his men are fleeing for their lives from Saul. They are in great physical danger, and need food to sustain them on their journey. David comes to the tabernacle and asks the priest for bread. The only bread available is the "bread of the presence," which only the priests are allowed to eat. After ensuring that David's men are ceremonially clean, the priest gives David the bread, in violation of an explicit command (Leviticus 24:9).

Why did the priest give David the bread? I do not believe he would have given this to just any hungry beggar who came along. But he knew that David was anointed by God, chosen by God for a special task. He was confident that David was acting in accord with God's will, and truly needed this bread to accomplish God's task. He saw the rule for what it was: a helpful picture, but one that could be violated to fulfill God's greater purpose.

So as in many other cases, Jesus here argues from the lesser to the greater. He says: "David violated an explicit ceremonial regulation in order to accomplish God's purpose; if that action was acceptable, then this picking of grain on the Sabbath must be acceptable also, for the rule is your own extension of the ceremonial regulations, not one explicitly stated in Scripture. Furthermore, I am greater than David; I am Lord of the Sabbath."

Look again at verse 27: "The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath." Jesus here calls the Pharisees to consider the true meaning of the Sabbath. Once again, God's purpose in setting up the Sabbath was to provide a picture of our resting in God from our works. These disciples were learning how to rest in God through their relationship to Jesus, they were in the process of learning that they are put right with God through His blood alone. So they were fulfilling the Sabbath in its truest sense. God's regulations regarding the absence of physical work on the Sabbath was always intended only as a picture of the absence of spiritual work to try to earn God's favor. So, once again, it is the Pharisees, and not the disciples of Jesus, who violate the true meaning of the Sabbath by their pride and self-righteousness.

So I ask you once again: Why did you come this morning? To earn brownie points with God? So that God would put a check on your chart, saying "July 11, 1999, Coty came to church, and preached. That offsets that sin of pride he committed on July 3rd." Or did you come so that you might learn to depend on God that much more?

Let us look at the first six verses of chapter 3 briefly. The opposition to Jesus now comes to a head. Prior to this, the Pharisees or their associates encounter Jesus as he is engaged in various actions, and are confused and troubled by those actions. They ask questions, and Jesus patiently teaches them. But now, for the first time, Mark records that they have come to the synagogue on the Sabbath with the explicit purpose of accusing him before the crowds. They know that Jesus will be teaching, and they know that an injured man will be present. They consider Jesus' teaching dangerous, and want to turn the people away from him.

Look again at verses 3-5:

And He *said to the man with the withered hand, "Rise and come forward!" 4 And He *said to them, "Is it permitted on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to kill?" But they kept silent. 5 And after looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He *said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored. (Mark 3:3-5 NASB)

As we saw in chapter 2, Jesus once again uses the occasion of a physical healing to teach an important lesson. The Pharisees equated healing with work, and thus considered Jesus in violation of the Sabbath. But we have seen that the true purpose of the Sabbath was to humble oneself, to acknowledge one's dependence upon God for all things, particularly for one's righteousness.

So Jesus turns the tables on them, asking, "Is it permitted on the Sabbath to do good or harm, to save a life or to kill?"

Why does Jesus ask the question this way? They aren't suggesting that he kill or do harm on the Sabbath; they only want Jesus to refrain from healing.

But who is plotting to do harm? Who is planning a murder? See verse 6:

6 And the Pharisees went out and immediately began taking counsel with the Herodians against Him, as to how they might destroy Him.

They themselves are plotting murder; they themselves are plotting to harm -- on the Sabbath! So Jesus says, "Who is violating the Sabbath? I am healing! I am doing good! You are plotting a murder. Which of us is a Sabbath-violator?"

Until this point, Jesus has not been angry with his opponents; on the contrary, he has patiently answered all their questions. He takes the opportunity provided by their questions to teach key doctrines. But now, he looks around at each one with anger, deeply grieved. These men are so hard, such rigid and brittle wineskins -- these men who had studied the Scriptures but had missed the entire point; these leaders who should have been teaching the people these central truths of humility and dependence on God, but instead were wallowing in self-righteousness; these men who should have welcomed the longed-for Messiah with open arms, but instead were walking down the road to hell, death, and destruction. So Jesus is angry that those who should have been leaders of love are so full of hate.

So the purpose of the regulation against work on the Sabbath is so that we might learn not to depend on our own works to establish our righteousness but on those of Jesus. Our job is to actively depend on Him, to rest in Him. The fundamental sin is self-righteousness, believing that one has no need of the offer of salvation by grace through faith.


So why are you here this morning?

We can never earn God's favor by any religious observance. We can never satisfy God by attending church, being baptized, teaching Sunday School, or taking communion.

God's offer to us is free: "Come to me! Drink of the streams of living water! Satisfy yourself! Rejoice in me always, and I will give you more than you ask for, more than you can even imagine! Deny yourself, yes -- deny yourself those petty pleasures, the treasures that are moth-eaten, the treasures that disappear overnight -- and come delight in the true treasures that never perish or fade."

You cannot impress God -- through fasting, through observance of days, through religious acts. You can only depend on him.

So away with all claims to self-righteousness. Rejoice in your relationship with God, rejoice in the righteousness that is freely given, as bubbling, dynamic new wine in flexible, new wineskins.

Jesus calls to you: "This is a party! This is joy! I have come so that you might have life, and have it abundantly! I instituted the Sabbath so that you would depend on me for your joy, for your pleasure, for your fulfillment, and not on your measly accomplishments, not on these pseudo-pleasures the world offers. Rest in me! Take pleasure in me!

Listen to his call!

This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 7/11/99.

Copyright © 1999, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

This data file may not be copied in part, edited, revised, copied for resale or incorporated in any commercial publications, recordings, broadcasts, performances, displays or other products offered for sale, without the written permission of Thomas C. Pinckney,, c/o Community Bible Church, Harrison Ave, Williamstown, MA 01267.

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