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Mark has begun his gospel by quickly establishing several critical ideas:
- He states his major objective in the very first verse of his gospel: demonstrating that Jesus is the divine Son of God.
- He establishes the historical and cultural background of Jesus: He was a Jew living at the time of John the Baptist, and the one who fulfilled the prophesies of the Jewish Scriptures concerning the Messiah/Savior.
- He describes the two aspects of Jesus' ministry that establish His claim of being the Son of God: His amazing teaching and miracles.
In the following chapters Mark will continue reciting the teachings and miracles of Jesus, and will add to these a description of the people who opposed Him and would later plot His execution.
Encounters — 2:1-3:35
The confrontations that Jesus has with different groups are recorded in a series of seven encounters described in the next two chapters.
1When He had come back to Capernaum several days afterward, it was heard that He was at home. 2And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room, not even near the door; and He was speaking the word to them. 3And they came, bringing to Him a paralytic, carried by four men. 4Being unable to get to Him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above Him; and when they had dug an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic was lying. 5And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, Son, your sins are forgiven." 6But some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, 7"Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?" 8Immediately Jesus, aware in His spirit that they were reasoning that way within themselves, said to them, "Why are you reasoning about these things in your hearts? 9Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven'; or to say, 'Get up, and pick up your pallet and walk'? 10But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins"—He said to the paralytic, 11"I say to you, get up, pick up your pallet and go home." 12And he got up and immediately picked up the pallet and went out in the sight of everyone, so that they were all amazed and were glorifying God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this."
The scribes accused Jesus of blaspheming because He forgave the paralytic's sins. They correctly understood that only God had the authority to do such a thing. What they did not accept was Jesus' implicit assertion that He was God.
Jesus' power was demonstrated visibly in order to prove that He also had the power to do things not visible to the human eye (i.e. remove sin through forgiveness). The charge that He was blaspheming was spurious since, as God, Jesus could not blaspheme against Himself.
13And He went out again by the seashore; and all the people were coming to Him, and He was teaching them. 14As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax booth, and He said to him, "Follow Me!" And he got up and followed Him. 15And it happened that He was reclining at the table in his house, and many tax collectors and sinners were dining with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many of them, and they were following Him. 16When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they said to His disciples, "Why is He eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?" 17And 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."
In this instance the scribes and Pharisees accused Him of having an immoral lifestyle because He ate with Publicans and sinners. Jesus responded that His mission was to heal the spiritually sick, and for this work He needed to be among them. Jesus did not participate in immorality, He was among immoral people in order to preach the gospel to them.
18John'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?" 19And Jesus said to them, "While the bridegroom is with them, the attendants of the bridegroom cannot fast, can they? So long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20But 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. 22No 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."
Mark recounts another episode where the disciples of John, together with the Pharisees, accused Him of lacking spirituality because He did not encourage His own disciples to fast. Jesus uses this occasion to teach them that truly spiritual people know when to fast and when to feast. The fact that He, the Messiah, was among them was a cause for feasting, not fasting (in their feasting, His disciples were showing true spiritual discernment).
The patch and wineskin refer to Judaism and Christianity. You cannot repair Judaism by patching Christianity on to it; you must remove the old and use all of the new cloth. Similarly, you cannot preserve Christianity by putting it within the confines of Judaism because Christianity will grow out of these confines and a rupture will occur. Christianity needed to be independent from Judaism because it was a growing thing and Judaism was not. With the coming of Jesus, Judaism had fulfilled the purpose for which it had been created (to establish a historical, cultural, religious stage upon which the Messiah would appear in human history).
23And it happened 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. 24The Pharisees were saying to Him, "Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?" 25And He said to them, "Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions became hungry; 26how 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 also gave it to those who were with him?" 27Jesus said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. 28So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath."
This time the Pharisees accused Jesus' disciples of disobeying the Law by picking grain on the Sabbath. The Law did teach that it was unlawful to work on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8), however, the Pharisees had created numerous definitions of what work was with the intention of limiting every possibility of breaking this commandment. The result was a set of rules that not only bordered on the ridiculous, but also created a heavy burden for the ordinary person who was sincerely trying to keep the Law. In this context even picking corn or a single fruit from a tree as a snack was seen as "work" by the fanatical Pharisees.
Jesus uses the example of King David (I Samuel 21:1-9) and the time that he ate the sacred bread. The "Showbread" consisted of 12 loaves of bread baked and set in the place where the priests offered sacrifice. These were to be eaten only by the priests. There was a time when David, on the run trying to avoid capture by King Saul, came searching for food and was told by the priests that the only food available was the Showbread, so he took and ate these.
Jesus says that in doing so David did not sin because human need outweighs the requirements of ceremonial law. He explains that the Sabbath was created because man needed rest and spiritual renewal, not the other way around. Man was not created to be a slave to religious ceremony.
Jesus provides context by saying that, in effect, He was the Lord of the Sabbath (He was the One, along with the Father at the time of creation, who instituted the Sabbath, John 1:1-2). Paul, the Apostle, explains that everything was created by and for Jesus (Colossians 1:15-16), and that includes the Sabbath day. Now, as Messiah, Jesus was to fulfill all the requirements of the Sabbath (not the regulations added by man). He was, therefore, Lord of the Sabbath because He initiated it at the beginning and fulfilled its requirements at the end.
1He entered again into a synagogue; and a man was there whose hand was withered. 2They were watching Him to see if He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. 3He said to the man with the withered hand, "Get up and come forward!" 4And He said to them, "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?" But they kept silent. 5After 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. 6The Pharisees went out and immediately began conspiring with the Herodians against Him, as to how they might destroy Him.
Once more the Pharisees wanted to accuse Him of breaking the Sabbath by healing on that day. Jesus counters their accusation by asking them if it is ever wrong to do good? The true Law concerning the Sabbath had no regulation about healing on the Sabbath, this is what the Pharisees and scribes had invented. Notice how He heals the man with only His word. Jesus shows that it is always good to do good, even on the Sabbath.
7Jesus withdrew to the sea with His disciples; and a great multitude from Galilee followed; and also from Judea, 8and from Jerusalem, and from Idumea, and beyond the Jordan, and the vicinity of Tyre and Sidon, a great number of people heard of all that He was doing and came to Him. 9And He told His disciples that a boat should stand ready for Him because of the crowd, so that they would not crowd Him; 10for He had healed many, with the result that all those who had afflictions pressed around Him in order to touch Him. 11Whenever the unclean spirits saw Him, they would fall down before Him and shout, "You are the Son of God!" 12And He earnestly warned them not to tell who He was.
Note that the demons would cry out merely at His presence, and there was no limit to His power to heal. Jesus quieted the demons because He did not want any affirmation or witness of His divinity coming from an evil source.
13And He went up on the mountain and summoned those whom He Himself wanted, and they came to Him. 14And He appointed twelve, so that they would be with Him and that He could send them out to preach, 15and to have authority to cast out the demons. 16And He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom He gave the name Peter), 17and James, the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James (to them He gave the name Boanerges, which means, "Sons of Thunder"); 18and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot; 19and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Him.
Jesus was constantly followed by crowds of people made up of the curious, those who wanted to denounce Him, and disciples at varying degrees of faith and commitment. At this point He selects 12 men that He will personally teach and train to be His witnesses after He is gone.
20And He came home, and the crowd gathered again, to such an extent that they could not even eat a meal. 21When His own people heard of this, they went out to take custody of Him; for they were saying, "He has lost His senses." 22The scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, "He is possessed by Beelzebul," and "He casts out the demons by the ruler of the demons." 23And He called them to Himself and began speaking to them in parables, "How can Satan cast out Satan? 24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but he is finished! 27But no one can enter the strong man's house and plunder his property unless he first binds the strong man, and then he will plunder his house. 28"Truly I say to you, all sins shall be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin"— 30because they were saying, "He has an unclean spirit."
Jesus' family sees the crowds and the confrontations with dangerous enemies and try to remove Him from this environment, thinking that He has lost His senses. The situation becomes urgent as even more powerful adversaries arrive from Jerusalem. They accuse Him not simply of being unbalanced, but actually being possessed by the demon "Beelzebub," a name for the devil, and doing His work in cooperation with and under the power of Satan himself.
Jesus shows how illogical this is. He argues that if Satan is destroying demons, then he is destroying himself. It was true that demons were being destroyed (when He miraculously cast evil spirits out of people), but Jesus shows that this was not being done by Satan's power. The Lord was not doing Satan's work, He was destroying it.
Jesus adds the warning that blaspheming the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. According to the information in this passage, this blasphemy occurs when the ministry of the Holy Spirit is attributing to the devil. In other words, when someone declares that Satan is responsible for the work or blessing one has actually received from God, they are blaspheming the Holy Spirit. In the case where the scribes were confronting Jesus, they were saying that His teachings and miracles (both done through the power of the Holy Spirit, Acts 10:38) were actually done through the power of Satan.
To designate the Spirit as a devil, therefore, is to put ourselves beyond the teachings and witness of Christ, the very person and words that ultimately lead us to salvation (Romans 1:16). If, in one's mind, the work of the Spirit comes from the devil, then where does one go to find salvation? In doing such a thing the person who blasphemes destroys the very bridge that leads to salvation and thus is denied forgiveness, not by the will of God, but by denying the person who could have led him to repentance in the first place, the Holy Spirit (John 16:8).
31Then His mother and His brothers arrived, and standing outside they sent word to Him and called Him. 32A crowd was sitting around Him, and they said to Him, "Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are outside looking for You." 33Answering them, He said, "Who are My mother and My brothers?" 34Looking about at those who were sitting around Him, He said, "Behold My mother and My brothers! 35For whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother."
Mark returns to the scene where His family wants to take custody of Jesus and bring Him home. Theirs was probably a sincere effort to protect Him from the danger He was clearly subject to.
Jesus responds to news of their efforts by talking about relationships. His earthly family believes that its family ties give them the right to advance on Him and tell Him what is right and prudent given the circumstances. Jesus does not defend His sanity or doctrine. He merely points to His real family, those who do the will of God. These, He says, are the ones related to Him and each other in the only way that counts, eternally.
In this section Mark has described various confrontations with religious leaders as well as a difficult moment with His earthly family. During these times the gospel writer described the accusation and Jesus' response:
- Blasphemy (disrespect for God)
- He was God.
- Immoral (associated with sinners)
- He ministered to sinners.
- Unspiritual (did not keep feasts and tradition)
- He discerned the true will of God.
- Disobeying the laws of their religion
- He obeyed God's laws, not men's laws.
- He was possessed by the devil
- He was filled with the person and power of the Holy Spirit.
- He was disloyal to His family because of His ministry
- He put the kingdom of God first.
Does this sound familiar? Don't Christians in every generation go against man-made religious tradition and have problems with family or society? Are not the same accusations made over and over? If they are not, maybe something is wrong.
Teaching Through Parables — 4:1-34
The miracles and teachings that provoke a series of confrontations are over and Jesus now shifts His style of teaching to avoid these. He continues to teach, but now in parable form so only His disciples and apostles will discern, and not the unbelievers or His enemies.
11And He was saying to them, "To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, 12so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven."
The word parable means "to lay beside; to compare." It is the putting of two things side by side in order to draw a lesson or gain some understanding. Jesus used stories that explained an idea or principle set in the physical world in order to help His listeners understand parallel ideas and principles set in the spiritual world. In other words, He used things that could be seen to explain things that could not be seen.
In order for the parable to be of value, the hearer had to understand the analogy. In most parables Jesus was using everyday physical and human situations to explain the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven. His purpose was to give the people practical information about this "spiritual" thing called the kingdom: what the kingdom was, who was in it, how it operated and how one functioned as a member of it.
The kingdom, as Jesus describes it, is made up of God and His people. It exists on earth for a time and in heaven for all time. While on earth Jesus was calling people to come into the kingdom. This He did by preaching the gospel. He also described the nature of the kingdom and the lifestyle of those within it. This He did by using parables.
In chapter 4 Mark recalls four of these parables.
Parable of the Sower and the Seed - 4:1-20
1He began to teach again by the sea. And such a very large crowd gathered to Him that He got into a boat in the sea and sat down; and the whole crowd was by the sea on the land. 2And He was teaching them many things in parables, and was saying to them in His teaching, 3"Listen to this! Behold, the sower went out to sow; 4as he was sowing, some seed fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate it up. 5Other seed fell on the rocky ground where it did not have much soil; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of soil. 6And after the sun had risen, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. 7Other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. 8Other seeds fell into the good soil, and as they grew up and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold." 9And He was saying, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."
10As soon as He was alone, His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables. 11And He was saying to them, "To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, 12so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven." 13And He said to them, "Do you not understand this parable? How will you understand all the parables? 14The sower sows the word. 15These are the ones who are beside the road where the word is sown; and when they hear, immediately Satan comes and takes away the word which has been sown in them. 16In a similar way these are the ones on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; 17and they have no firm root in themselves, but are only temporary; then, when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away. 18And others are the ones on whom seed was sown among the thorns; these are the ones who have heard the word, 19but the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. 20And those are the ones on whom seed was sown on the good soil; and they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold."
This parable describes how one will or will not develop in the kingdom (verse 20). He gives both the parable and its explanation because it is similar to many others: entry and growth in the kingdom are based on how well you react to God's word.
Those who do not enter or do well are those who have a hard heart or do not hear (because of a sinful life, disbelief, etc.); those who have no conviction and do not persevere in the Word; or those who have too much involvement in the world and forget or ignore the Word. These people have a hearing problem and it prevents them from entering or remaining in the kingdom.
Those who enter and are successful in the kingdom are those who hear and respond properly to the Word. They understand, believe and respond in obedience to the Word. To the degree that they respond in faith and obedience, they are productive at various rates (thirty, sixty, a hundredfold are the rates of return possible based on the faithfulness and obedience of the hearers).
The Parable of the Lamp - 4:21-22
21And He was saying to them, "A lamp is not brought to be put under a basket, is it, or under a bed? Is it not brought to be put on the lampstand? 22For nothing is hidden, except to be revealed; nor has anything been secret, but that it would come to light.
In the following parable, Jesus continues to explore the idea of fruitfulness, but changes the figure in order to make another point.
- Obedience = Fruitfulness (sower and the seed)
- Fruitfulness = Witness (the light of a lamp)
He switches the imagery to lamps to explain that your fruitfulness in the kingdom will produce the light that is necessary to light up this dark world. The kingdom is a kingdom of light and your fruitfulness is what produces that light. Your fruitfulness has a purpose and its purpose is to give off light (which is the purpose of a lamp in the first place), therefore, the light of the kingdom is the fruitfulness of its members, and that light helps others find and enter the kingdom.
In verse 22 Jesus warns that nothing remains a secret forever. All that we do will either be revealed now or later at the judgment. The light of the gospel and the light produced by our deeds, as those who belong to the kingdom, provide the only light that the world has for now. When Jesus comes, however, He will search the hearts of all men with the light of truth.
Commentary by Jesus - 4:23-25
23If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear." 24And He was saying to them, "Take care what you listen to. By your standard of measure it will be measured to you; and more will be given you besides. 25For whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him."
Between parables Jesus issues a warning to the ones listening to Him. If you hear, perceive or understand, then you will be rewarded based on the degree that you obey. If you respond with sincere obedience and submit patiently to the Word, you will produce at a rate of thirty, sixty or a hundredfold (depending on your maturity and spiritual skills).
If you hear, understand and perceive but reject it, or do not act upon what you hear, you will lose whatever understanding and enlightenment you once had. The less you have as a base of understanding, the less, therefore, you will be able to receive. Jesus is explaining to them that the ability to understand spiritual matters is like a bucket: if you do not fill it up and use it, God replaces it with a series of smaller and smaller buckets to the point where you will only be able to contain very little of what He has to give you, if anything at all.
The Parable of Normal Growth in the Kingdom - 4:26-29
26And He was saying, "The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; 27and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know. 28The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. 29But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come."
The previous parable was about the different kinds of soils. This parable is about the seed itself and how it grows once sown. Jesus explains that once the seed is sown, man has no power over its growth. The growth takes place apart from man's effort which is, in the end, harvesting the results of the seed's growth. The sun, rain and cultivation help the growth, but the life is in the seed.
The spiritual parallel here is that the seed is the Word of God, and once it is planted in the heart by faith and watered by perseverance it grows within man to produce spiritual fruit. The Word has the life (power) that produces the spiritual fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, etc. - Galatians 5:22-23). Man harvests it (exhibits and uses the fruit), but he does not produce it through self-will or exercise.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed - 4:30-32
30And He said, "How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, 32yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that the birds of the air can nest under its shade."
Jesus explained the good soil (believing heart) and the power of the seed (it produces the fruit, not man). Now He will explain the potential of the type of seed that He plants. In comparison to the plant that it produces, the seed of that plant is tiny but the plant itself is usually much larger and looks nothing like the seed that has produced it (i.e. the seed contained in an apple looks very different than the apple itself or the tree that grows from that tiny seed).
In the same way, the Word of God may seem small, and our reading of it and efforts at complying with it may seem humble, but look at the results throughout history as this seed has produced a kingdom that has surpassed all others and continues to grow unabated (Daniel 2:31-35).
Summary - 4:33-34
33With many such parables He was speaking the word to them, so far as they were able to hear it; 34and He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples.
Mark repeats why the Lord's teaching has taken this form for now. Jesus is focusing on His disciples, those who believe. The ones who listened to Him but did not believe, as well as those who were waiting for an opportunity to attack Him could hear the words that He was speaking but could not grasp the meaning and, were thus, neutralized for now.
Through these parables, therefore, Jesus explained that the kingdom of God:
- Began with the preaching of the Word.
- Was established through belief and obedience to the Word.
- Grew through the power of the Word in men's hearts as they persevered in it (faithfully obeyed what it said).
- Has more potential than man realized (difference between apple seed and apple tree).
In addition to this, the news of a growing kingdom was given in parables in order to avoid the suspicion of Jewish religious leaders who would not tolerate any challenge to their positions of power within the Jewish religious system.