Section Intro, Mk 2:1-3:6

This section relates five Galilean incidents which provoked controversy between Jesus and the Jewish traditionalists. It is balanced by another five later on (Mk 11:27-37) centred on Jerusalem. In this passage, the radical difference between Jesus and the Jewish leaders and teachers becomes apparent. But note that the contrast is made in a practical manner: by his acts of forgiveness and invitation.

Two preliminary points:-

1. Jesus actually said and did the things we read about in the Gospels. This is apparent in this section, (a) from the setting in Capernaum, which was the home of Peter, who is understood to have been Mark’s principal informant; (b) from the presence of many eyewitness details, including the historic present tense.

2. Jesus has a habit of upsetting people.  Jesus message was so radical, that conflict was unavoidable. The claims he made for himself, the people he associated with, the criticisms he levelled against the religious establishment, all made him unpopular with those who had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. The idea that if only the church got her act together society would embrace her is illusory. If the church got her act together she might find herself much more persecuted than she it at present (English).

Healing and Forgiving a Paralytic, 1-12

2:1 Now after some days, when he returned to Capernaum, the news spread that he was at home. 2:2 So many gathered that there was no longer any room, not even by the door, and he preached the word to them. 2:3 Some people came bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. 2:4 When they were not able to bring him in because of the crowd, they removed the roof above Jesus. Then, after tearing it out, they lowered the stretcher the paralytic was lying on. 2:5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

He entered Capernaum – the home of Peter, Mk 1:21,29.

The people heard that he had come home – Jesus probably stayed with Peter while in Capernaum, making his headquarters there for his work in Galilee. So here is another eyewitness link with Peter. The idea that this was Jesus’ own home (and that he is, in v5, forgiving the man for damaging his roof!) is fanciful.  The account itself gives the kind of detail (e.g. v2) that only one present could have given.

It was heard – People spread the word, “He is here, he is indoors.”

Many gathered together – Not surprising, in view of the amazement aroused by Jesus words and deeds, Mk 1:21-34,38-45. Those who gathered came out of (a) real and enthusiastic interest; (b) mere curiosity to find out what Jesus would say and do; (c) suspicion, envy and hostility. We learn from this that people gather round Jesus for many different reasons. Not all these reasons are noble or sincere. These days, we are happy for people just to show an interest in Christ; we are content if somehow we can get them into church. But this is to no avail if a work of the heart is not in progress.

No longer any room… – The doorway was blocked, explaining the desperate measures adopted by the friends carrying the paralysed man.

Notice the graphic detail, such as only an eyewitness could have given.

The enthusiasm shown is the same as that which was accorded Jesus earlier, 1:32-33.

He preached the word to them – The message of salvation, cf. Mk 1:14-14,22,38; 4:14-33. We ought not to lose the connection between the preaching of the word and the accompanying miraculous signs, cf 16:20. Moreover, the assumption that he was preaching the gospel of repentance and faith (1:15) helps us understand why he first focussed on forgiveness when the paralysed man was lowered down.

Mk 2:3–12 = Mt 9:2–8; Lk 5:18–26

Then they came to him – Even the tense is ‘a vivid dramatic historical present’ (A.T. Robertson), preserved in Lk 5:18, but not in Mt 9:2 (imperfect).

A paralytic – we cannot be sure about the medical features of this condition, except that the man could not walk. The determination of the four men suggests either (or both) (a) the severity of his plight; (b) their confidence in Jesus’ power to heal.

Carried by four men – More eyewitness detail, not found in the other accounts.

They made an opening in the roof – Lit. ‘they unroofed the roof’. The house would have had a flat roof with access from an external staircase. The roof would have been of clay, supported by branches spread across wooden beams.  Lk 5:16 describes it as a tile roof.

Their faith – That of the paralysed man and his friends. This faith was evidenced by their determination in bringing the man to Jesus: they obviously believed that Jesus had the ability to heal him. Here is an example of ‘taking the kingdom of heaven by force,’ Mt 11:12.

“Son, your sins are forgiven you” – Jesus does not say that the man’s sin caused his disease.  But he links his authority over the one to indicate his authority over the other.

‘Physical healing is not the most important gift God can give. Among the first words Jesus said to the paralyzed man were “I have forgiven your sins.” Then he healed the man. We must be careful not to concentrate on God’s power to heal physical sickness more than on his power to forgive spiritual sickness in the form of sin. Jesus saw that even more than physical health, this man needed spiritual health. Spiritual health comes only from Jesus’ healing touch.’ (HBA)

This could be understood as ‘God forgives you’ (a prophetic statement similar to Nathan’s in 2 Sam 12:13). The passive expression was characteristically Jewish way of making a pronouncement while avoiding saying the divine name. It would have been understood as, ‘God forgives you.’ The tense signifies, ‘God forgives you at this moment.’ (Lane) However, the statement could also be understood as ‘I forgive you’, which is clearly an assumption of the divine prerogative. The scribes obviously chose to understand it in this sense, since they were already looking for reasons to condemn Jesus.

Jesus’ response seems unexpected and incongruous. However, the OT frequently links healing with forgiveness, so that healing is often an outward sign that forgiveness has taken place, 2 Chron 7:14; Ps 103:3; 147:3; Isa 19:22; 38:17; 57:18-19. Indeed the terms ‘forgiveness’ and ‘healing’ are sometimes used interchangeably, Ps 41:4; Jer 3:22; Ho 14:4. ‘Jesus’ healing miracles are sacraments of forgiveness’ (Cranfield).

‘It’s a shocking statement. Those who were there at the time were shocked because only God can forgive sins, so they regarded it as blasphemy. Jesus, however, proves his authority to forgive by then healing the man. The miracle demonstrates his unique identity. But we also find Jesus’ words shocking because we think we know what this man needs. There he is, lying in front of Jesus, unable to walk. Surely he needs to be healed. But he has a much bigger need. We all do. We need to be forgiven. Our sin separates us from God and incurs his judgment. A lifetime of paralysis is a terrible plight. But far worse is an eternity in hell.’  (Chester, Tim. Do Miracles Happen Today? Page 41)

The forgiveness of sins takes priority over the healing of the body. Such forgiveness is a deeper need on our part, and a surer sign on Christ’s part, than the healing of the body. Indeed, we must always feel uneasy about supposed miracles which are not rooted in this deeper moral soil. They are, are John is apt to tell us, ‘signs’ pointing to the person of Christ and his spiritual mission, and not merely ends in themselves.

The Jews tended to make a very direct connection between sin and affliction: the greater the affliction, the more serious the sin must have been which caused it, Job 4:7; 22:5-10; Lk 13:4. Jesus himself combatted this error on a number of occasions, Jn 9:1-2. Still that there is a general connection between sin and suffering is not to be doubted: if there had been no sin, there would have been no disease. Jesus’ reaction here may well have been with a view to bringing to the surface this relationship, asserting that the forgiveness of sins has priority over physical healing, and perhaps addressing a particular need in this man.

William Lane comments: ‘Healing is a gracious movement of God into the sphere of withering and decay which are the tokens of death at work in a man’s life. It was not God’s intention that man should live with the pressure of death upon him. Sickness, disease and death are the consequence of the sinful condition of all men. Consequently every healing is a driving back of death and an invasion of the province of sin. That it why it is appropriate for Jesus to proclaim the remission of sins. It is unnecessary to think of a corresponding sin for each instance of sickness; there is no suggestion in the narrative that the paralytic’s physical suffering was related to a specific sin or was due to hysteria induced by guilt. Jesus’ pronouncement of pardon is the recognition that man can genuinely whole only when the breach occasioned by sin has been healed through God’s forgiveness of sins.’

‘All the miracles of healing are in a sense parables of the soul’s deliverance from sin, and therefore the prominent place they occupy in the Gospel story is amply justified.’ (Bruce, The New Testament Documents)

Note that Jesus does not merely proclaim forgiveness, as Nathan had done to David, 2 Sam 12:13; he actually provides it.

Wright, assuming that this was ‘probably Jesus’ own house’ suggests that the words of forgiveness were first of all for the man having been the cause of damage to the roof.  Then, Wright speculates, there was something in Jesus’ voice that made those around him realise that some deeper kind of forgiveness was also meant.  It was this that made the onlookers uneasy.  This interpretation seems to introduce an unnecessary complication, and not warranted by the text itself.

Question: if Jesus could pronounce forgiveness of sins before crucifixion, then why was it necessary for him to be crucified?

2:6 Now some of the experts in the law were sitting there, turning these things over in their minds: 2:7 “Why does this man speak this way? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

Experts in the law – A closed order of legal specialists who had been set apart by the laying on of hands. Jesus came into conflict with them because of his refusal to observe the oral law, which they regarded as binding.

This marks the beginning of human opposition to Christ in this Gospel. The opposition grows in intensity: it begins with the Teachers of the Law thinking to themselves; next they complain to the disciples, Mk 2:16; and then to Jesus himself about the disciples, Mk 2:24; but before long they are accusing him of being in league with the devil, Mk 3:22. But all of the these are but the festering of the murderous hatred which was there at the beginning.

Jesus brings an unavoidable conflict with him. This conflict is between love of God and love of self, between divine law and human tradition, between freedom and bondage, between outward act and inner attitude, is inevitable. When we call a truce in such a battle it is a sure sign that we in danger of sacrificing the whole Christian enterprise.

“Blaspheming” – In Jewish teaching, not even the Messiah could forgive sins. Jesus’ claim to do so was tantamount to a claim to deity – hence their accusation of blasphemy. The punishment for blasphemy was death by stoning, but the evidence had to be incontrovertible. The suspicion of blasphemy became the basis for the condemnation of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, 14:61-64.

“Who can forgive sins but God alone?” – See Ex 34:6-7; Ps 103:12; Isa 1:18; 43:25; 44:22; 55:6-7; Jer 31:34; Mic 7:19.

Mark mistaken?
It has been suggested that Mark is mistaken in putting these words into the mouths of the teachers of the law, and that Matthew (Mt 9:3) corrects him by dropping the phrase.  A Dead Sea Scroll called ‘The Prayer of Nabonidus'(4Q242) , written and copied by Jews, contains the words, ‘… an exorcist pardoned my sins. He was a Jew…’.  This looks like the privileging of an extra-biblical source over a biblical source.  For all we know, a public display of pardon by an exorcist might have aroused the ire of these scribes just as much.  And, in any case, it is common knowledge that people will readily exaggerate (turning, ‘God can forgive sin’ into ‘only God can forgive sin’) if not actually fabricate, when it suits them.
Let us be on our guard

How easy it is to see supposed faults in others, and to be blind to one’s own follies! ‘The combination of rigidity in teaching, narrowness of expectation about the Messiah, prejudice about the unpromising pedigree of Jesus (see 2:7 this fellow) and, sadly, maybe more than a little jealousy at his success, causes serious, religious men to be on the side of evil not good, Satan not God. It is a chilling experience to test our attitudes and actions by such criteria.’ (English)

2:8 Now immediately, when Jesus realized in his spirit that they were contemplating such thoughts, he said to them, “Why are you thinking such things in your hearts? 2:9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up, take your stretcher, and walk’?

When Jesus perceived in his spirit – Jesus knows the inner secrets of the heart. He reads people’s thoughts like a book.

“Which is easier…?” – The point is that both are impossible for man, but easy for God. The scribes could do neither, but Jesus could do both. And both signify the presence of God’s kingdom, Isa 53:5-6; Jer 31:34; Eze 36:25-27; Mic 7:18; Zec 13:1.

‘Some Jewish teachers accepted miracles as verification that a teacher was truly God’s representative; others did not regard miracles as sufficient proof if they disagreed with the teacher’s interpretation of Scripture.

Jewish teachers knew that only God could ultimately forgive (on the Day of Atonement in response to sacrifice); but they also recognized that healing ultimately came from God. Both were from God but could be announced through God’s agents acting according to his will. Josephus shows us that many false prophets in Jesus’ day claimed to work miracles but actually failed to work them; some of Jesus’ critics may have placed him in this category. His act in front of these witnesses, however, should have challenged them to rethink their case.’ (IVP Bible Background Commentary)

2:10 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,”—he said to the paralytic—2:11 “I tell you, stand up, take your stretcher, and go home.”

“But that you may know…” – Presumably spoken to the teachers of the law, although some (e.g. Cranfield and Lane) think that this is a Markan commentary (see next note). This would seem to define the main purpose of the miracle in this instance. One purpose of Jesus’ miracles was to attest to his deity. One reason he healed men’s bodies was that they might know that he also has power to heal their spirits.

“The Son of Man” – A favourite self-designation of Jesus, occurring some fourteen times in this Gospel. However, in most instances it ‘provides the key to Jesus’ self-disclosure to his disciples’ – it seems unlikely that he would have used it himself before his critics. It may be a Marcan explanatory statement (others of which are found in Mk 2:15; 2:28; 7:3-4,19; 13:14) (Lane). The phrase itself is probably derived from Dan 7:13. It portrays Christ especially in his perfect and representative humanity. Yet even in his humanness he has “power on earth to forgive sins.” No angel, no minister, no earthly priest has the power to forgive sins. But Jesus has, and it is to him we must apply for forgiveness. The best of men are but signposts and witnesses to this divine forgiveness.

2:12 And immediately the man stood up, took his stretcher, and went out in front of them all. They were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

This amazed everyone and they praised God – This did not, of course, include the Teachers of the Law, who allowed themselves to become more and more resentful. No doubt there were some upon whom a lasting impression was made. Still others were simply caught up in the excitement. Yet in the end, the people of Capernaum as a whole rejected Christ.

This passage as a whole (vv1-12) shows us that there is an intimate relationship between sin and disease. Both are destructive of human life, and Christians are called to oppose all that threatens our common humanity by their mission evangelism, environmental concern, racial harmony, sexual equality, and so on.

The Call of Levi; Eating with Sinners, 13-17

2:13 Jesus went out again by the sea. The whole crowd came to him, and he taught them. 2:14 As he went along, he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the tax booth. “Follow me,” he said to him. And he got up and followed him.


Jesus has demonstrated his authority in the matter of forgiveness of sin; now he shows his willingness to welcome the worst of sinners.

The sea – of Galilee.

Mk 2:14–17 = Mt 9:9–13; Lk 5:27–32

Levi – This was his given name; his ‘Christian name’ was Matthew, Mt 9:9; 10:3.

The tax office – Levi was a collector of taxes under Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. His booth was probably on the major route which linked Syria and Egypt and which passed through Capernaum. Taxes were collected on merchandise that passed on this route.

‘The custom-house has usually been a place noted for plundering and for unjust exactions, and was at that time particularly infamous. In the choice of Matthew out of that place, not only to be admitted into the family of Christ, but even to be called to the office of Apostle, we have a striking instance of the grace of God. It was the intention of Christ to choose simple”] and ignorant persons to that rank, in order to cast down the wisdom of the world, (1 Cor 2:6) But this publican, who followed an occupation little esteemed and involved in many abuses, was selected for additional reasons, that he might be an example of Christ’s undeserved goodness, and might show in his person that the calling of all of us depends, not on the merits of our own righteousness, but on his pure kindness.’ (Barnes)

“Follow me” – And Levi did so, leaving everything, including his lucrative business, Lk 5:28.

This looks like a remarkably sudden response.  However, it may well be that Levi/Matthew already knew Jesus.  (Peter, Andrew, James and John had known Jesus for something like a year before their call (Mt 4:18-22; Jn 1:35-51).

Hendriksen comments: ‘It is well-nigh certain that Matthew, who lived and worked in Capernaum, the very place which Jesus had chosen as his headquarters, had had frequent previous contacts with the Master and that when the call came he had already surrendered his heart to him and the cause he represented.’

2:15 As Jesus was having a meal in Levi’s home, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 2:16 When the experts in the law and the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 2:17 When Jesus heard this he said to them, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

He was dining – To eat with someone was a sign of friendship. The text does not make it clear whether it was Levi’s house or Jesus’ (on loan from Peter).

The same house is mentioned again, in a similar way, in Mt 9:28; Mt 13:1, 36; Mt 17:25.

It would have been unthinkable for a pious Jew to eat with a tax collector.

Hendriksen suggests that this may be considered as a kind of ‘farewell’ meal, marking the dramatic change from the old life to the new.

Tax collectors and sinners – Notorious sinners and also those who refused to observe the law of Moses as interpreted by the teachers of the law, Jn 7:49. The term was applied to tax collectors, adulterers, robbers, and the like. Jesus welcomes notorious sinners, without condoning their behaviour, v17. Such people are ‘the lost’ who must ‘be found’, Lk 15:1-4 19:10.

The term is used here for people dismissed by the Pharisees as inferior because they had no interest in the scribal tradition. Such people, for example, did not eat their food with ceremonial cleanness, and it was a disgrace for a Jesus to share in a meal with them. The rabbis had a rule which said, ‘The disciples of the learned shall not recline at table in the company of the people of the soil.’ Cf. Jn 7:49.

Men who collected taxes for the Romans had a bad reputation for extortion and malpractice.  The presence of ‘many’ tax collectors is suggestive of the former occupation of the writer of this Gospel.

“Sinners” were those whose daily occupations rendered them ceremonially unclean and not, in Pharisaic eyes, to be associated with.  To what extent they violated not only the ‘traditions of the elders’ but also the law of God itself is difficult to determine; it is reasonable to suppose that they did both.

‘They who are effectually brought to Christ themselves, cannot but be desirous that others also may be brought to him, and ambitious of contributing something towards it. True grace will not contentedly eat its morsels alone, but will invite others. When by the conversion of Matthew the fraternity was broken, presently his house was filled with publicans, and surely some of them will follow him, as he followed Christ. Thus did Andrew and Philip, Jn 1:41,45; 4:29. See Jud 14:9.’ (MHC)

‘Unlike some church people in many parts of the world, Jesus was totally relaxed in the presence of ‘sinners’ and outsiders of every kind. They loved to be with him.’ (Green)

Jewish tax collectors and their families were despised and treated as outcasts. They could not act as witnesses and were expelled from the synagogues.

These terms denote two well-known groups of people who were despised by the Pharisees.

Accepting for the sake of the argument the Pharisaic distinction between the ‘righteous’ and the ‘sinners’, Jesus explains why he is associating with the latter: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” – Variations of this maxim can be found in both Jewish and non-Jewish sources. Its validity would not have been questioned by the Pharisees.

Pharisees – ‘Both in the dubious company he kept (9–13) and in his apparently lax attitude to the traditional duty of fasting (14–17), Jesus offended their sense of propriety. But in this he was deliberately challenging and superseding their outmoded understanding of the will of God.’ (NBC)

‘A proud generation of men, conceited of themselves, and censorious of others; of the same temper with those in the prophet’s time, who said, Stand by thyself, come not near me; I am holier than thou: they were very strict in avoiding sinners, but not in avoiding sin; none greater zealots than they for the form of godliness, nor greater enemies to the power of it. They were for keeping up the traditions of the elders to a nicety, and so propagating the same spirit that they were themselves governed by.’ (MHC)

‘Christ was quarrelled with. It was not the least of his sufferings, that he endured the contradiction of sinners against himself. None was more quarrelled with by men, than he that came to take up the great quarrel between God and man. Thus he denied himself the honour due to an incarnate Deity, which was to be justified in what he spake, and to have all he said readily subscribed to: for though he never spoke or did anything amiss, every thing he said and did was found fault with. Thus he taught us to expect and prepare for reproach, and to bear it patiently.’ (MHC)

‘Sin is the sickness of the soul; sinners are spiritually sick. Original corruptions are the diseases of the soul, actual transgressions are its wounds, or the eruptions of the disease. It is deforming, weakening, disquieting, wasting, killing, but, blessed be God, not incurable.’ (MHC)

The healthy – ‘There are multitudes who fancy themselves to be sound and whole, who think they have no need of Christ, but that they can shift for themselves well enough without him, as Laodicea, Rev 3:17. Thus the Pharisees desired not the knowledge of Christ’s word and ways, not because they had no need of him, but because they thought they had none. See Jn 9:40,41.’ (MHC)

‘I used to bristle when I heard someone accuse Christianity of being a “crutch” religion, a faith that attracted the poor and the crippled and those who could not quite make it on their own. But the more I read the Gospels and the Prophets, the more willingly I admit to a “crutch” faith. Those who make such disdainful comments about Christianity are usually self-confident, successful over-achievers who have made it on their own by looking out for number one, without asking anyone for help.

Frankly, the gospel has little offer people who refuse to admit need. Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus said, and those who mourn, and the persecuted. Basic repentance requires me to come prostrate before God and admit that God, not I, is best qualified to tell me how to live. (Perhaps for this reason Jesus singled out the wealthy as the group least likely to enter the kingdom of heaven.’ (Yancy, Church Why Bother?, p56)

‘When he associates on intimate terms with people of low reputation he does not do this as a hobnobber, a comrade in evil, “birds of a feather flocking together,” but as a physician, one who, without in any way becoming contaminated with the diseases of his patients, must get very close to them in order that he may heal them!’ (Hendriksen)

‘There are, of course, no ‘healthy’ under God’s expert examination, but there are lots of people who think they are. Such people do not see their need of a doctor, although they harbour germs of the same fatal disease of sin which they condemn in its cruder forms in others. There is no room for the Pharisee spirit in the kingdom. The word means ‘separated ones’, proud that they stand out from the crowd and are good people. Such an attitude stinks in God’s nostrils. The kingdom is a one-class society—for sinners only.’ (Green)

“I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” – This saying is left hanging in air are here, but completed in Lk 5:32 – ‘…but sinners to repentance.’

This is why Jesus is associating with such people: it is to meet their need. He befriends them, not to show approval for their life-styles and behaviour, but to bring healing and forgiveness. “I did not come to call the righteous” – that is, those who think they are righteous.

Christ’s invitation is not to the self-righteous, but to sinners. And these are not told to repent and then come, but to come, that they might repent. Here is the fundamental difference between the religion of Christ, and all others, including Rabbinism. These latter demand life, the former imparts it. Indeed, the very word ‘Pharisee’, meaning ‘separated one’, implies the exclusion of sinners.

Of course, no person is righteous by nature, Ps 14:3; Rom 1:18-32; 3:10-18. The Pharisees, however, were righteous in their own eyes.

There is, of course, a difference between ‘call’ as ‘invitation’, and ‘call’ as ‘summons’.  The former meaning applies here.  The latter meaning, which is sometimes referred to as ‘effectual calling’ is prominent in the Epistles, as in Rom 4:17; 8:30; 9:11, 24; Gal 1:6, 15; Eph 1:18; 4:1, 4; Phil 3:14; 1 Thess 2:12; 4:7; 2 Thess 1:11; 2 Tim 1:9.  But even in the Gospels we are taught that divine enablement is required in order for a person to respond savingly to Christ’s inviation, Mt 7:7; 19:25, 26; Lk 11:13; 12:32; 22:31, 32; Jn 3:3, 5; 6:44; 12:32; 15:5.

Luke adds ‘to repentance’, making explicit what is already implicit in Matthew and Mark.

Blomberg trenchantly comments: ‘Jesus’ fraternizing with disreputable people remains a scandal in the predominantly middle class, suburban, Western church. Many of us, like the Pharisees, at best ignore the outcasts of our society and at worst continue to discriminate against them. We do well to consider substantially increasing our spiritual, evangelistic, and social outreach to minorities, the homeless, prostitutes, addicts and pushers, gays and lesbians, AIDS victims, and the like, as well as to the more hidden outcasts such as divorcees, single parents, the elderly, white-collar alcoholics, and so on. We must get to know them as intimately as Jesus did—only close and trusted friends shared table fellowship over meals. We dare not join with sinners in their sinning, but we may well have to go places with them and encounter the world’s wickedness in ways that the contemporary Pharisees in our churches will decry.’

Hendriksen (on Matthew) concludes: ‘Here in Matt. 9:13 the glorious purpose of Christ’s incarnation and mission receives beautiful expression. The passage makes clear that not to those who consider themselves worthy but rather to those who are in desperate need the invitation to salvation, full and free, is extended. It was sinners, the lost, the straying, the beggars, the burdened ones, the hungry and thirsty, whom Jesus came to save.’

Let us have the same attitude as Jesus

Are we too ready to dismiss people as ‘unsavable’ because of their reputation? Associating with the ungodly and the unlovely involves risks. That is why, no doubt, James enjoins involvement with such people but also to keep oneself unspotted from the world. (Jas 1:27) There is a danger of Christians developing their own subculture, and becoming increasingly isolated from the world. We need to keep in mind the example of Jesus: he was sustained by a life of communion with the Father, and fellowship with his disciples, from which base he could go into the most unlikely of places and win people to faith.

The Superiority of the New, 18-22

2:18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. So they came to Jesus and said, “Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples don’t fast?” 2:19 Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they do not fast. 2:20 But the days are coming when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and at that time they will fast.
Mk 2:18–22 = Mt 9:14–17; Lk 5:33–38


Fasting – Jesus did not disapprove of fasting in itself, Mt 6:16-18.

The required public fasts were only three in number: the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29,31 23:27-32; Num 29); the day before Purim; and the ninth of Ab, commemorating the fall of Jerusalem.

In the time of Christ, the Pharisees fasted twice a week (on Mondays and Thursdays), Lk 18:12. They would wear sackcloth, rub ashes on their faces, and sucked their cheeks in to look as gaunt and as miserable as possible – so as to show God (and people) how pious they were.

John’s followers were probably fasting in mourning for him.

Bridegroom – The Messiah is not represented in the OT as a bridegroom.  But God himself is.  As Edwards (Pillar) says, ‘At the baptism Jesus is declared to be God’s Son and is endowed with God’s Spirit. His divine status and empowerment combine in his exousia, his divine authority, to defeat demonic powers (Mk 1:25) and even to forgive sins (Mk 2:10). The imagery of the bridegroom recalls not a messianic function but the person of God himself. In this suggestive metaphor Jesus continues, naturally and without arrogance, to presume the prerogatives of God to himself. The upshot of the wedding imagery is thus not unlike the forgiveness of sins in Mk 2:7, which invited hearers to supply their own answer to Jesus’ identity. Both episodes are provocations to see that the role and mission of God are now present in Jesus.’

Here, then, Jesus identifies himself with the OT bridegroom, Isa 5:1; 54:5–6; 62:4–5; Ezek 16:6–8; Hos 2:19, who is God in covenant relation with Israel. See also Mt 25:1-14; Rev 21:2.  Jewish weddings were particularly joyous occasions. Celebrations could last up to a week, and fasting was unthinkable, since fasting was associated with sorrow.

All three Synoptists give the three parables (bridegroom, unshrunk cloth, new wineskins) explaining Jesus’ behaviour in feasting with Levi on a Jewish fast-day, Lk 5:36. We should not miss his emphasis on the spiritual rather than the ritualistic and ceremonial.

The presence of Jesus brings wonderful joy.

When Jesus, the bridegroom, is taken from them by death, then will be an appropriate time for fasting.

Edwards (Pillar), remarks that this is ‘an abrupt and dismaying image. In a normal wedding it is the guests who finally leave the groom and bride to begin life together. But Jesus interjects the alien thought of the groom being forcibly removed from the wedding celebration.’

‘This expression has led many to suppose that from the time when our Lord Jesus Christ left the world, literal fasting from meats and drinks at certain seasons, was to be the duty of all Christians.

There seems no ground for this sweeping conclusion. That fasting and abstinence were occasionally practised by believers after our Lord’s ascension is clear and plain. That all who may find the practice useful and helpful to their souls at the present day are right in fasting, if they do it without ostentation, is also plain. But the utter absence of any direct injunction, or command to keep fasts in the Church of Christ, either in the Acts or Epistles, and specially in the Epistles to Timothy and Titus, makes it clear that the matter is one which should be handled with caution, and on which every one must be “persuaded in his own mind.”

The words before us appear to have a deeper meaning than any mere abstinence from food. They seem to foretell that the period of time between our Lord’s first and second advent must be a time of mourning and humiliation to all true believers. They describe the state of mind in which all true Christians should live until their Lord returns. It is a time for daily and hourly self-denial, and mortification. The time of fulness and satisfaction cannot be till we see the Bridegroom amongst us again.’ (Ryle)

Although, as noted, we think first of the period between Jesus’ arrest and his resurrection as a time of grieving, there will be other times of trouble, when fasting will be appropriate.  ‘“Conflicts on the outside, fears within,” is how Paul described the long haul and lonely watches of Christian discipleship (2 Cor 7:5). It was with reference to sustaining the life of faith and growth into Christ-likeness that fasting continued to be practiced in early Christianity. The discipline of physical privation in fasting was an aid to watchfulness, contrition, and strength and sensitivity in Christian life.’ (Edwards, Pillar, Mark)

Gladness, not sadness

Hendriksen: ‘The important truth which Jesus here reveals and which makes the passage so practical and filled with comfort especially for today is that for those who acknowledge Christ as their Lord and Savior the proper attitude of heart and mind is not that of sadness but that of gladness. If it be true that “God with us” (Immanuel) spells joy for believers, should not “God within us” (the situation on and after Pentecost) awaken in every child of God joy unspeakable and full of glory? It was in order to bring such abounding joy that Jesus came on earth and that he, through his sacrificial death, brought salvation full and free. See Luke 2:10: “good tidings of great joy”; Lk 24:52: “they … returned to Jerusalem with great joy”; John 15:11: “that your joy may be full”; 17:13: “that they may have my joy made full in themselves.” The apostles learned that lesson (Rom. 5:11; 15:13; Gal. 5:22; Philippians, the entire epistle; 1 Peter 1:8; 4:13; 1 John 1:4; 2 John 12).’

2:21 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 the tear becomes worse. 2:22 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins will be destroyed. Instead new wine is poured into new wineskins.”

New wine must be put into new wineskins – Wineskins were made from goat skins. When new wine was put in them, gas was produced, which caused the skin to stretch. If new wine was put in a skin which was already stretched, the skin would burst. The religious leaders of the day had become like old skins: they could not accept the new life which Jesus offered.

Lord of the Sabbath, 23-28

2:23 Jesus was going through the grain fields on a Sabbath, and his disciples began to pick some heads of wheat as they made their way. 2:24 So the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is against the law on the Sabbath?” 2:25 He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry—2:26 how he entered the house of God when Abiathar was high priest and ate the sacred bread, which is against the law for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to his companions?”
Mk 2:23–28 = Mt 12:1–8; Lk 6:1–5


His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain – The action itself was unobjectionable, being covered by Deut 23:25.

“Why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” – The disciple’s action was interpreted as harvesting, which according to Jewish tradition (in the Mishnah) was forbidden on the Sabbath. See Ex 34:21. God’s law at this point was obviously intended to prevent farmers from becoming too greedy, ignoring the Sabbath, and overworking their labourers. Tradition had added 39 specific prohibitions to this general command, the third of which had to do with reaping. But the Pharisees missed the point, choosing to focus on the words, rather than the intent, of the rule.

It is so easy to become so caught up in rules and regulations that we miss the real point in being followers of Christ.

“Have you never read…?” – in 1 Sam 21:1-6. This demonstrates the value to us of a thorough knowledge of Scripture. David, whose life was regarded as upright except in the matter of Uriah, 1 Kings 15:5, had shown that some requirements of God’s law might be relaxed in cases of necessity. The sword of the Spirit proved on this occasion to be an irresistible weapon, and Jesus’ opponents were silenced. We should have the same confidence in and knowledge of Scripture that our Lord did, so that, like him, we can answer all questions of faith and conduct with a ‘Thus says the Lord.’

In the days of Abiathar the high priest

When Abiathar was high priest'?

Mark 2:25f – “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry—2:26 how he entered the house of God when Abiathar was high priest and ate the sacred bread…?”

According to 1 Sam 21:1-6, Ahimelech was high priest at this time.  His son, Abiathar, became high priest shortly afterwards.  Various attempts at reconciling this apparent discrepancy have been made:-

(a) Some think that Mark is plainly mistaken.  For Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar who moved from conservative evangelicalism to agnosticism, this text was instrumental in undermining his belief in the truthfulness of Scripture.  As a student, he had written an extensive essay defending the accuracy of the text.  His tutor, however, raised the question, “Perhaps Mark simply made a mistake.”  It is remarkable that this had such an effect on Ehrman, given that there are many Christians who would allow for the presence of minor inexactitudes in the Bible while still accepting its overall trustworthiness in matters of faith and practice.  For John Byron, this same text raised similar questions about the Bible’s historical value, although with less devastating effects on his personal faith.

(b) Others think that Mark originally wrote ‘Ahimelech’, but this was changed by early copyists to ‘Abiathar’.

(c) William Hendriksen proposes the rather desperate expedient of suggesting that both father and son gave the bread to David(!)

(d) According to Cranfield, ‘in the days of Abiathar the High Priest’ need not imply that he was actually High Priest at the time.  He suggests that there may be some confusion between Ahimelech and Abiathar in the OT itself – citing 1 Sam 22:20 with 2 Sam 8:17; 1 Chron 18:16; 24:6.

(e) Blomberg (Historical Reliability) notes that ‘in the days of’ translates the Gk. word ‘epi‘.  Following John Wenham, he suggests that Mark means, ‘In the passage about Abiathar‘ (Abiathar, mentioned in 1 Sam 22, was the better-known of the two, and note the similar construction in Mk 12:26).  Blomberg has also posted on this question here.

In Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon (p148), Blomberg writes:

Ahimelech is certainly the more dominant of the two high priests in the larger context of the latter portion of 1 Samuel, making Wenham’s application to Mark 2:26 extremely plausible. Moreover, in eighteen of the twenty-one Markan uses of the preposition, ἐπί has a local or spatial rather than a temporal sense, rendering the traditional translation (“when Abiathar was high priest”) less likely.

The last of these explanations seems the most likely.  The problem is, of course, fairly trivial, except for those who feel the need to defend the inerrancy of the Bible in every detail, and those whose faith is too flimsy to withstand any uncertainty.  There is some indication that Matthew and Luke recognised that there was a problem here, because both Matthew 12:4 and Luke 6:4 drop the offending name.

He also gave some to his companions – A second ‘mistake’ has been attributed to Jesus (or to Mark) here: in 1 Sam 21 David claims that he is alone when asking for bread, whereas Jesus states that his companions were with him.  Even though scholars such as John Byron assert that there is a contradiction, there is in fact none: it is clear from 1 Sam 21 that David was lying.

2:27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. 2:28 For this reason the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

The introductory phrase (lit. “And he was saying to them”) suggests that what follows is a fragment of teaching not necessarily directly related to what immediately precedes (cf Mk 2:27; 4:2, 11, 21, 24, 26; 6:10; 7:9; 8:21; 9:1). This saying is found only in Mark.

“The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” – The rabbis, with all their petty regulation, seemed to think that the man was made for the Sabbath. But no – the Sabbath was made for the good of man, for his physical, mental, and spiritual welfare. As A.T. Robertson remarks, there are other institutions (e.g. the church itself) where the same order must be observed: they were made for man, and not man for them.

Man was created first, then came the sabbath, Gen 1:26-2:3. It was instituted for man’s blessing: that he might be healthy, happy and holy.

The rabbis, by means of minute and often absurd restrictions, changed the sabbath into a cruel tyrant, and man into that tyrant’s slave.

‘Although many regard this teaching as tantamount to a rejection of the Mosaic law, Christ actually affirmed the sabbath by saying that it was made not just for the Jews, but for mankind, and was made not for one time but for all time, presumably. He observed the sabbath, worshiping and teaching in the synagogue. His conflicts with the scribes and Pharisees concerned His doing good on the sabbath, which He said did not violate the law (3:2; Lk. 13:14).’ (Gerstner, ISBE, art. Law in the NT)

“The Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath” – he is not the slave of the Sabbath, but its master, and that not to abolish it, but to interpret it, give it its rightful place, and give it a new name.

The sabbath a day of blessing

Matthew Henry says, ‘the sabbath is a sacred and divine institution; but we must receive it as a privilege and a benefit, not as a task and a drudgery. First, God never designed it to be an imposition upon us, and therefore we must not make it so to ourselves…Secondly, God did design it to be an advantage to us, and so we must make and improve it…He had some regard to our bodies in the institution, that they might rest…He had much more regard for our souls. The sabbath was made a day of rest, only in order to its being a day of holy work, a day of communion with God, a day of praise and thanksgiving; and the rest from worldly business is therefore necessary, that we may closely apply ourselves to this work, and spend the whole time in it, in public and private…See here what a good master we serve, all whose institutions are for our own benefit…’