What’s worse? A limp, lifeless limb or a rock hard heart?
Oh, I’m not asking because one is that much better than the other. Neither is exactly an all-expense paid trip to Sandals.
But which is the best of the worst? If someone forced you to pick, what would it be? A physical deformity or petrified ticker?
That’s the question on the table at a worship service one weekend in Capernaum (Mk 3:1-6). But before get there, let’s back up a bit in Mark’s bio of Jesus.
Setting the Scene
The time is the First Century. The place, Israel. Specifically, Capernaum, a little backwater fishing village on the north shore of Lake Galilee.
There’s a hot new Rabbi from just up the road in Nazareth named Jesus who’s all the buzz. His own cousin believes this relative is the One God has promised to send for centuries (Mk 1:2-3, 8). The Carpenter’s Son is packing them in wherever He goes (Mk 1:28, 32, 37, 45).
The Worst of the Worst
Jesus has started assembling a team. Let’s just say that His choices are, um, curious. Four crusty commercial fishermen (Mk 1:16-20) and a rat fink Roman tax collector (Mk 2:13-14).
And have you seen who else He’s hanging out with? These people are the worst of the worst! Nothing but losers, rejects, and outcasts (Mk 2:15-17).
Who Does He Think He Is?!?
Meanwhile, religious leaders are about to blow a gasket over Jesus. He doesn’t seem to give a flying flip about their complicated rules about obeying God.
He heals and forgives sin without their permission (Mk 2:6-12)! His crew has the unmitigated gall to break their bylaws by grabbing a snack on the Sabbath (Mk 2:23-28)! Who does He think He is…GOD?!?
We pick up the action as villagers gather for a time of worship. “Jesus went into the synagogue again” (v1). The word “synagogue” (Gr. συναγωγυ/sunagoge) is a compound Greek term that literally means a “bringing (Gr. -αγωγυ/-agoge) together (Gr. συν-/sun-).”
Just like “church” doesn’t mean the building but the people, it’s the same with synagogue. It’s the gathering or uniting of people. But the synagogue is WAY more than a group of people that gets together once a week. It’s the center of life in the village.
And it’s not exactly like you have another choice when it comes to worshiping God. Capernaum Community Church may not be a megachurch but it IS the only game in town. You don’t exactly do a lot of “synagogue shopping” in 30 AD.
A Second Sabbath at the Synagogue
This is the second time we see our Savior gathering with God’s people on the Sabbath. If you’ve been following the story in Mark’s story of Jesus, this is the same synagogue He attends back in the opening chapter (Mk 1:21-26).
People are still talking about what happened that day. As if His amazing message wasn’t enough, He performed a quickie exorcism right before everyone’s eye.
Catching Jesus’ Eye
At some point after He arrives the second time, somebody catches His eye. He “noticed a man with a deformed hand” (v1). Mark doesn’t mention his name. Neither do Matthew or Luke in their versions of the same story (Mt 12:9-14; Lk 6:6-11).
It makes you wonder if that’s how everybody in town knew him. The man with the deformed hand. Kinda like the crazy cat lady on the corner or the homeless guy at the exit ramp.
Too many times we slap a label on somebody instead of asking them for their name or if we can help. Labels not nearly as messy as getting to know someone.
An Atrophied Hand
Whatever the case, the dude clearly has a disability. According to Mark, his hand is “deformed” (v1). The author uses a word (Gr. ζηραινω/xeraino) which describes something that’s dried up, shriveled, or deprived of fluid.
More than one Bible expert says the grammar here tips us off that this isn’t a birth defect but the result of an injury or disease. If that’s the case, it’s’ easy to picture the man’s hand atrophied after lack of use.
It should come as no surprise that Dr. Luke makes a note in the chart that it’s the patient’s right hand (Lk 6:6).
The Real Cause
We never find out how it happened. Is it an injury? Was he attacked? Did he suffer a stroke? Is it a case of MS?
The big answer is that sin is the cause. Yup, that’s right. Sin. Our first parents first let the monster out of the cage into God’s perfect creation (Gen 3:1-9).
A Broken World…and We Broke It!
Whether we’re the victim of our own rebellion or someone else’s, we can trace it all back to sin. We live in a broken world.
Don’t believe me? Just click on your favorite 24-hour cable channel. Subway terrorist attacks. Nuclear threats. Mass killings. We live in a broken world, alright. And we’re the ones who broke it!
Here We Go Again
Meanwhile, back in the synagogue, we soon see that everyone there is NOT a fan of the Nazarene. “Since it was the Sabbath, Jesus’ enemies watched Him closely. If He healed the man’s hand, they planned to accuse Him of working on the Sabbath” (v2).
Here we go again. The religious police look to bust Jesus and His boys one more time. This is the fifth time in Mark’s Gospel they’ve tried taking down the Son of God. Gotta give the Pharisees credit for one thing. They are a persistent bunch.
They hated it when Jesus not only forgives but heals the disabled dude (Mk 2:1-12). They lose their minds when He parties with sinners (Mk 2:13-17).
They freak out when He feasts instead of fasts (Mk 2:18-22). They accuse His crew of working on God’s day off when they’re simply hitting a drive-thru (Mk 2:23-27).
For those scoring at home, they’re oh-for-four. Hmm, I wonder how this will turn out?
Our God-Given Day off
Notice a few interesting points Mark makes in this verse. First of all, it’s Sabbath Saturday, the God-given day off for rest and worship (Gen 2:2-3; Ex 20:8-11).
The Pharisees tried to help out the Almighty by closing what they see as loopholes in the holy law. They meticulously defined limits on what you could and could not do. How far you could walk. How hard you could work.
Setting the Trap
As a result, they “watched Him closely” (v2). Mark uses a Greek verb here (Gr. παρατηρεω/paratereo) meaning to observe with total focus and tunnel vision.
When used in a negative sense (as Mark clearly does here), it means to lie in wait or lurk. They’re setting a trap and just waiting to ambush their prey. Go ahead, Jesus. Perform a miracle. We dare you!
Locked and Loaded
What exactly are His enemies hoping to see? “If He healed the man’s hand…” (v2). Did you catch that? If. They clearly believe Jesus COULD heal. It was only a matter if He WOULD heal.
And if Jesus has the nerve to restore this guy’s atrophied hand, they’ll be all over Him like white on rice. The Pharisees are locked and loaded, just waiting “to accuse Him of working on the Sabbath” (v2).
The Devil You Say!
When we peek behind the word “accuse” (Gr. κατηγορεω/kategoreo), we see a legal term meaning to bring formal charges against someone. Again, they’re actually HOPING Jesus breaks their rules.
It just so happens to be the very same word the Apostle John hears over the heavenly loudspeaker describing Satan as “the accuser (Gr. κατηγορεω/kategoreo) of our brothers and sisters” (Rev 12:10).
Let’s just say anytime someone in the Bible compares you to the devil, you might want pump your brakes and take a long look in the mirror.
Enforcing God’s Rules
These Jewish leaders think it’s their job to enforce God’s rules. There’s just one little problem. His laws about working on the Sabbath have absolutely nothing to do with helping people and everything to do with glorifying God (Gen 2:1-3; Ex 20:8-11; 23:12; 34:21; 35:3; Lev 23:3; Dt 5:12-15).
As a matter of fact, Jesus has already dropped the mic on these knuckleheads about this once before (Mk 2:27-28). God created the Sabbath to serve us, not the other way around. He should know since His Heavenly Dad put Him in charge of the Sabbath.
A Sabbath Showdown
Clearly Christ is more than ready for another showdown with the Pharisees over what should go down on the Sabbath. He knows EXACTLY why they’re here and what they hope to do.
In his take on the same event, Dr. Luke points out, “Jesus knew their thoughts” (Lk 6:8). You do realize we can never pull a fast one on the Son of God, don’t you?
Can Everybody See?
The Lord invites the physically challenged guy to step forward in the synagogue. “Jesus said to the man with the deformed hand, ‘Come and stand in front of everyone’” (v3).
He wants everybody to see what’s about to go down. He doesn’t want anybody…including the Pharisees…ESPECIALLY the Pharisees…to miss one bit of what’s about to happen. Move on in, folks. Can everybody see?
Out from the Shadows
Put yourself in the man’s sandals for just a moment. Your shriveled hand is an embarrassment and shame. It limits everything you do. Jesus has to call you front and center because you’re hiding in the corner where no one could see you.
When God gets involved in our healing, there’s no longer any reason to be ashamed of our brokenness. Don’t hide. Let everyone see what Christ can do. Why? He specializes in turning our awful into awesome.
A Question for the Know-It-Alls
Just as He calls up the man with deformed hand, Christ calls out the religious know-it-alls. Before He does any healing, Jesus has a little question for them. “Then He turned to His critics and asked, ‘Does the law permit good deeds on the Sabbath, or is it a day for doing evil? Is this a day to save life or to destroy it?’” (v4).
Hey boys, since you’re such hot shots when it comes to God’s law, here’s a question for you. If you’re going to do something on the Sabbath, what would it be? Helping or hurting? Good or evil? And in doing so, our Savior flips the script.
Sins of Omission
Jesus not only turns the table on the Pharisees, He also makes a much bigger point. NOT doing what we know we should do is the same as doing what you shouldn’t do. In other words, not doing good IS doing evil. The sin of omission is the same as a sin of commission.
Stephen Short puts it this way in the International Bible Commentary. Jesus claims that refusing to heal the man would technically be a ‘work’ just as much as to curing him, and an evil one at that.
Fixing a Flat
Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’re on your way to church one Sunday morning. While you’re driving, you see a single mom broken down on the side of the road, struggling to change a flat tire.
Do you (a) put the hammer down and head to church because you shouldn’t be working on the Sabbath, or (b) pull over and help because it’s the loving thing to do? Hint: God won’t mind if you’re late to church.
Just in case the light bulb hasn’t come on yet, Jesus’ kid brother James puts it this way. “Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it” (James 4:17). See any loopholes about the Sabbath anywhere in there? Didn’t think so.
Jesus’ question to His enemies shuts them up and shuts them down. “But they wouldn’t answer Him” (v4). Crickets. Silence. Dead air. He’s exposed them in front of everybody on their home court. Awkward.
But this isn’t simply about winning an argument. The Son of God is furious over their total lack of compassion. “He looked at them angrily and was deeply saddened by their hard hearts” (v5).
There’s more than one medical problem in the room. There’s obviously the poor guy with the atrophied hand. But our Savior also sees their hard-boiled hearts…and He doesn’t exactly need an EKG to do so.
It should come as no surprise that Jesus diagnoses the Pharisee’s heart problem using medical lingo in the original language. “Hard” (Gr. πωρωσις/porosis) describes a callous, scar tissue, or any thick growth of tissue which results in insensitivity.
Robertson’s Word Pictures says the root word is actually a kind of marble. While marble may be great for countertops in your new kitchen, it’s the wrong thing when it comes to your heart.
Feeling Deeply about the Lack of Feeling
Jesus is both angry and brokenhearted at what He sees. On one hand, there’s the band with the shriveled hand. On the other, there’s the uncaring Pharisees and their rock hard hearts.
The Lord feels deeply about their total lack of feeling. His heart breaks anytime we show our lack of one. What a powerful reminder that He ALWAYS cares more than I do. Every. Single. Time.
Shattering God’s Heart
Our hard hearts shatter God’s own heart. Anytime scar tissue builds up and dulls our emotions, bad things happen. Let’s review.
Pharaoh had a rock for a heart and refused to release God’s people (Ex 4:21; 7:3, 14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:12, 34-35; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 6). Solomon instructs his kids, “Blessed is the one who fears the LORD always, but whoever hardens his heart falls into calamity” (Prov 28:13 ESV).
Not once but twice, the writer of Hebrews quotes the Psalms and tells us to not make the same mistake God’s people did in the desert. “Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion” (Ps 78:32; Heb 3:8 15).
A Hard Time with Hard Hearts
When the Pharisees point out that Moses signed off on quickie divorce, Jesus says the Big Mo only handed down the command “as a concession to your hard hearts” (Mt 19:8; Mk 10:4). Even Jesus’ own crew continually had a hard time with hard hearts (Mk 6:52; 8:17).
A hard heart is spiritually fatal. God’s chosen people miss the Messiah because of the hardening of their hearts (Rom 11:25). Non-Jews are alienated from a relationship with God because they have “hardened their hearts against Him” (Eph 4:18).
That explains why the wisest dude who ever lived made heart health his top priority. “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life” (Prov 4:23).
While a limp limb is nothing to sneeze at, heart hardness has eternal implications. Even for religious pros. ESPECIALLY for religious pros! That’s why Jesus had His harshest words for those who should have known better.
Healing the Hand
Back inside the synagogue, Christ turns His attention to the disabled man. “‘Hold out your hand.’ So the man held out his hand, and it was restored!” (v5). Jesus wasn’t going to let this bunch of bullies stand in His way of bringing healing.
Imagine the scene. You have to think there are cheers and applause. Oohs and ahhs. Something tells me you couldn’t wipe the smile off the man’s face who finally has the use of his right hand again.
Putting a Contract out on Christ
But there’s one group of folks who don’t share in the celebration. “At once the Pharisees went away and met with the supporters of Herod to plot how to kill Jesus” (v6). Well THAT escalated quickly!
How stony are their hate-filled hearts? Hard enough to murder. While I’m certainly no expert on the Pharisees complicated rulebook, I’m pretty sure plotting a murder does NOT qualify as a good work on the Sabbath!
A Common Enemy
How badly do they want Jesus dead? So bad that they team up with their hated rivals. These supporters of Herod are a secular political party who are blindly devoted to their allegiance to King Herod Antipas and the Roman Empire.
The Herodians have placed patriotism above everything else. Including God. Especially God. Imagine deeply religious people aligning themselves with hardcore patriots against a common enemy. Sound familiar?
God’s Heart Transplant
But did you realize that God can heal a hard heart just like he can an atrophied hand?
God can not only heal atrophied limbs but hard hearts as well. That’s at the heart of the promise Yahweh makes through a prophet named Ezekiel. The divine cure is a supernatural heart transplant.
A New Heart and a New Spirit
“I will take away their stony, stubborn heart and give them a tender, responsive heart, so they will obey My decrees and regulations. They they will truly be My people, and I will be their God” (Ezek 11:19-20).
And not just a new heart. A new Spirit. The Holy Spirit. In other words, God Himself comes to live in each one of us.
“I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new Spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put My Spirit in you so that you will follow My decrees and be careful to obey My regulations” (Ezek 36:26-27).
A limp limb. A hard heart. I wouldn’t want to choose either one. But we have a Savior who can cure either one, even on the Sabbath.