TO SAVE LIFE
By Nonso Ukeka
Key Verse 3:4
“Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’”
Do you all remember from the last passage, Levi the tax collector? He loved money! He believed that money was more important than the eternal destiny of his soul. He believed that money could make him happy. Did it? Not really. Yes Levi had a lot of money, but he had no real friends. People would see him walking down the street, and they’d turn around just to avoid him. Levi wasn’t happy. He was absolutely empty, miserable, and desperately lonely. But while others despised Levi and thought he was only firewood for hell, Jesus didn’t! Jesus saw in him a person in need of God’s help and mercy. So Jesus called to him, Levi… “come, follow me,” and so he was finally able to make a decision that would turn his life around completely and enabled him to begin a new life in Jesus. Truly, who is like our Lord Jesus?
In the passage we are looking at today, we see an all out confrontation between the religious leaders and Jesus. The Pharisees claimed to be Bible-centered, and adhered to the word of God. And they severely criticized the teachings of Jesus. But there was something terribly wrong with them! When Jesus taught the Bible, people were refreshed and felt the love of God in their hearts. But when the religious leaders taught the Bible people felt burdened and oppressed, inadequate and hopeless. The problem is that while they knew the Bible well, they really did not know God nor what was on God’s heart. God is not a slave-driver, making endless demands on the people. God is a loving Father, who only wants to see his people delivered from the power of sin, so that they can come back home to God. Jesus made that clear in his teaching. But the religious leaders criticized his teaching in order to discredit him. In this passage Jesus demonstrates the purpose of the law– the Bible. He also demonstrates the mercy of God for the weak and the helpless. Jesus is broken hearted because those who should be the shepherds of the people have become nothing but self-serving men. They had abandoned the flock of God. So Jesus turns his attention to his disciples, and commissions them to be shepherds and servants for these suffering people. Let’s now take a look at this remarkable story.
READ VERSES 23-24, “One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grain fields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” Jesus had rebuked the religious leaders for their legalism and their wrong interpretation of the Bible, which hinders people from knowing God and understanding his word. Because of their legalism, they were blind and stubborn, and unwilling to learn anything from Jesus. Instead of learning from Jesus, they followed him and his disciples, through some grain fields, determined to find fault in Jesus and his disciples. The religious leaders were hoping to catch them in some sin. Suddenly, HA! They saw the disciples picking up heads of grains and eating them! The religious leaders saw this as work being done on the Sabbath. “We’ve finally got him,” they thought to themselves. “What holy man would allow his disciples to work on the Sabbath?” But the disciples had to eat! They were always hungry. They traveled along with Jesus, moving from town to town preaching the word of God and serving the needy. They were simply eating some grains to relieve their hunger pangs. They had already learned from Jesus that the laws of God were not given to oppress people but reflected the love and mercy of God. They had learned from Jesus that the laws of God were intended to serve those who served God, not to crush them. But now the disciples seemed to be in trouble. The religious leaders were accusing them of breaking the Sabbath law. It was a moment of great embarrassment for them; and perhaps a bit confusing. Were they actually breaking the law or not? What did Jesus have to say about this?
Read verses 25-26. He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Why did Jesus remind them of this particular story in the Bible? This bread was a consecrated and holy bread, forbidden for anyone to eat other than the priests. It was intended for sacred use. But Jesus reminded them that when David was hungry the priest himself offered the sacred bread to David and to his men to eat. Was he breaking the law? No! He was in fact upholding the law. The priest in David’s story was a man of God who understood the purpose of the Bible and of God’s laws. Surely the sacred bread was unlawful for anyone but a priest to eat. But there is another law working here. It was the law of mercy and love. And that law is superior to any other law. The priest in David’s story understood that God valued David’s life more than the unlawful bread, even though it was sacred. How is it that the priest in David’s story knew what God would have him do in this instance? Simply, he loved God, and he also loved David, a fellow human being who was in need.
On the other hand, these religious leaders had completely missed the purpose of the law. They were using the law to judge and condemn Jesus and his disciples. They seemed to know the Bible inside and out. But tragically they didn’t know God nor understand the heart of God, who made the law. When they did not know God, they didn’t love him. They also didn’t love anyone else except themselves. They knew how to appear religious but they did not know how to help even one person with the Bible. Now they were using the Bible to criticize the disciples for eating on the Sabbath. They were using the Bible to criticize Jesus for allowing his disciples to eat when they were hungry. The story of David and the holy bread should have been enough to help them see God’s heart. But Jesus knew how stubborn they could be. So he continued teaching them.
Read 27-28. “Then he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.’” What did Jesus mean by that? He meant that the law– including the law of the Sabbath– was given to God’s people not to make them slaves to the law but to set them free and to give them life. The law– the Bible– was given to serve God’s people and not to oppress them. It was given to reveal the mercy of God for those who suffer. But these religious leaders were using the Bible to promote their own righteousness and to condemn the weak and helpless. Many can read the Bible, and many can understand what it is saying. In this day and age, we can even get a PHD in Bible knowledge. But the problem is that not many are ready to learn the heart of God in and through the Bible. And if they don’t, it is so easy to become like these religious people who can only see wrong and condemn rather than help and serve and bless those who don’t know the Bible. But when we learn the heart of God in the Bible, we can become like Jesus who defended and protected his disciples from the bigoted Pharisees. And so, we must always remember that God gave us the Bible and its laws not to oppress others with it, but to bless them and to set them free.
But the confrontations about the Sabbath laws did not end there— this is not the end of the story about the Sabbath laws. Read 3:1-2. “Another time he went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath.” The author Mark now tells us of a suffering man in the synagogue who was there on the Sabbath. It is amazing that the religious leaders really didn’t care much about this man and his problem at all. Mark tells us that they were only using the man as a bait to trap Jesus into doing some work on the Sabbath. Clearly this man had a serious life problem. He had a shriveled hand. It was shriveled–and dried-up–and wrinkled. In other words, he had a uselessly deformed hand. It hung limp at the side of the body looking gnarled and ugly. As far back as he could remember, he was like an outcast. Kids made fun of him, so he had to withdraw from society until he became a loner. When he grew up, he could not find a job. The moment employers spotted his one useless hand, they would tell him to go away. There is much to say about him. But clearly he was a man of many pains and wounds– and one of God’s abandoned children. His agony was endless! During the service he would sit quietly, in the back corner of the synagogue, hoping to go unnoticed.
On that day, Jesus had come to the synagogue to teach the Bible and to plant faith in the hearts of God’s people. But when Jesus saw this man sitting in the corner with his hand tucked in his pocket, his heart went out to him. Jesus loved him and wanted to heal his shriveled hand. He also wanted to heal the wounds of his equally shriveled heart. But most of all, Jesus just could not bare to see him in his suffering even for one more minute, and Jesus wanted to heal him right then and there. But how, it was the Sabbath! And the religious leaders again were watching to see if he would break the Sabbath law and heal the man. Now, Jesus had a dilemma, to heal or not to heal on the Sabbath. Jesus should uphold the Sabbath law– meaning, not to heal the man on the Sabbath. On the other hand, Jesus should also uphold the law of “Love”— meaning, to heal the man on the Sabbath. So what did Jesus do?
Read verse 3 and 4. “Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, ‘Stand up in front of everyone.’ Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent.” The man was suffering from a shriveled hand. But that was not the extent of his suffering. He also suffered from another problem. Years of being handicapped made him terribly self-conscious. He suffered from a crippled spirit, which preferred sitting in the dark corners of the synagogue rather than the bright front seats. And in eyes of Jesus he was not the only one diseased there. The religious leaders also suffered from a crippling disease, the disease of legalism and of self-righteousness. So Jesus sought to help both, the man with the shriveled hand as well as the religious leaders. How then did he help them? Look at verse 3 again: He said to the man with the shriveled hand: “Stand up in front of everyone”. Do you think that was easy for the man to do? It was like saying to him: “Show your deformity to everyone” or better yet, “Confront your life problem with courage.” His hand was his shame. All his life, he had tried hiding his shame. But now Jesus wanted him to confront his life problem before God, ignoring everyone. “Stand up in front of everyone” meant, “overcome your self-consciousness. Live before God not men.”
Then Jesus turned around to confront the religious leaders in order to help them. What did he say to them? Look at verse 4. “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” This was a common sense question, and at the same time a challenge to them. It was a challenge to examine their own hearts— to awaken their dead consciences. It was a moment of severe grace to them that could actually set them free from the corruption of their hearts. A moment of grace to help them understand the very heart of the Bible and the loving heart of God. It was a challenge to remind them that God is a life giver, and that they were chosen by God to serve his flock with the love of God. In this moment of abundant grace, how did they respond to his loving challenge? They remained silent! They refused to answer him. They remained silent because they had no love for God nor for suffering people. It seems that these people in their stubbornness only loved themselves and their pride more than the truth of God. So what did Jesus do next?
Look at verse 5. “He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.” Jesus’ words to the man, “Stretch out your hand” were also not easy words for the man. He was caught up between the accusing and murderous Pharisees and the compassionate Jesus who seemed to be alone in this confrontation with them. Jesus’ words to this man were a challenge to his faith. They challenged him to go beyond the doubts and to listen to the voice of God’s grace and love. They challenged him to stand on the truth of God– that God loves him and wants to heal him, even though others said otherwise. Still, it wasn’t easy for him. If he decided to obey Jesus, they would cast him out of the synagogue and the community and label him as a cult follower. The man needed faith in Jesus at this moment in his life. And he had faith. So he stretched out his hand by faith. He did it in obedience to Jesus. And it was completely restored.
When Jesus healed this man, he demonstrated the great love of God for his suffering people. He demonstrated the purpose of the law– to do good rather than evil– to give life rather than to take it. God gave us his word in the Bible to bless us, to help us and to heal us. In spite of the opposition to Jesus, his actions that day was a beautiful act of love and mercy. These religious leaders should have learned the heart of God from Jesus. But they were too proud and stubborn. Look at verse 6. “Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” Even when his life was threatened, Jesus did not stop preaching the gospel. Look at verses 7-12. There were countless people like this man with a shriveled hand, desperate and destitute, with no one to take care of them. There was no one to help them with their life problems. No one to care for their needs. Their shepherds, the religious leaders, had abandoned them, thinking they were not worth the trouble. but Jesus did not abandon them. Jesus did not think they were worthless. He worked, even harder, to serve the needs of those who came to him to hear the gospel.
Still, Jesus’ heart was heavy. Those who were called to serve the people had abandoned the people and their God-given mission. Worse still, they had become enemies of God, by opposing Jesus and his gospel. It seemed that evil had won the day. It seemed as if Jesus should give up. But not so! Jesus looked right at his followers and saw that, even though they were spiritually young, they were the ones to continue the work of salvation which Jesus had begun. They would be the shepherds that the religious leaders refused to be. Then with the hope of God burning in his heart, Jesus called to himself a few men to raise as shepherds and caretakers of these suffering crowds. Let us see what Jesus did.
Read verse 13. “Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him.” Who were they? Read verses 16-19. They were an odd group of men who came from all walks of life. Among them were ordinary fishermen and sophisticated tax collectors, intellectuals (realists) and dreamers. They seemed to be a group of nobodies who amounted to nothing. But there was a special quality to them. At the call of Jesus, they came to him. They came to him in humility of heart ready and willing to learn from him the word of God. They were also ready to learn from him how to take care of those who were suffering from the power of sin. They had witnessed Jesus’ life of servantship and sacrifice. But it did not matter to them that they had to sacrifice and serve as much. As long as they were with Jesus and had Jesus they were happy and could do anything. They knew that Jesus was not popular and his life was in constant danger. But it did not matter to them as long as it was for the glory of God. They were wonderful men ready to be molded by the gospel to serve God’s purpose in their lives. So Jesus called them to raise them up as the future hope for the world.
Read verses 14-15. “He appointed twelve —designating them apostles —that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.” Jesus’ purpose for them was to make them the heralds of the gospel to the world. But in order for them to be effective servants of God, they needed to spend time with Jesus and in his word. They needed to humbly learn from Jesus the shepherd life. There are many who seem to outwardly follow Jesus. But in their practical life, they like to spend time doing their own thing rather than in being with Jesus. But as for us who are called by God to serve his purpose, I cannot stress enough how important it is that we spend time with Jesus and in his word every day. Thank God that Jesus still calls, not the wise and the learned, but the ordinary men and women who are willing to come to him and to learn from him gospel faith. May God bless us to learn from Jesus until each one of us grows into a good shepherd like Jesus, who is willing to risk everything in order to help even one person be set free. Amen.