Mark 2:18-3:6

(A Bible Study Led by Dr. Larry Reynolds – February 16, 2012)


In Mark 2:1-3:6 Mark strings together five events that illustrate the growing conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders of His day.  These events are:

1.      The forgiving and healing of a paralytic man (2:1-12)

2.      The call of Levi (Matthew) and eating with sinners (2:13-17)

3.      A controversy about fasting (2:18-22)

4.      A controversy about picking grain on the Sabbath (2:23-28)

5.      A controversy about healing on the Sabbath (3:1-6)

The result of the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders is given in Mark 3:6 – “And the Pharisees went out and immediately began taking counsel with the Herodians against Him, as to how they might destroy Him.”  We looked at the first two of these five events in previous session.  In this session we will explore the final three events in this series of events.


A Controversy About Fasting (2:18-22)

In the previous paragraph Jesus was attacked by the Pharisees for “…eating and drinking with tax-gatherers and sinners…” (v.16).  Now, they are joined by some of the remaining disciples of John the Baptist to attack Him for not fasting.  It apparently galled them that while they were fasting, He was feasting at the table of tax-gatherers and sinners!  Actually, it is unclear to whom the pronoun “they” in verse 16 is referring.  Were these the disciples of John and the Pharisees or just some people who observed the difference between the actions of Jesus’ disciples and the disciples of John and the Pharisees and sought an explanation.  They asked in verse 18, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?”


To understand significance of that question, have understand something about practice of fasting as observed by Jewish legalists of first century...fasting, going without food for specified period of time, is commanded in OT only one time...for Jewish nation, the Day of Atonement, which was national day of mourning and repentance, was to be a fast 1st century however, the stricter Jews fasted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays... wasn't as harsh as sounds...involved doing without food between hours of 6:00 a.m. and 6:p.m....actually involved the missing of only one meal on the fast day...however, the Pharisees made big deal of these times of fasting...they wanted people to know how dedicated they were, so on fast days they would put ashes on their faces to give them a sickly look, wrinkle their garments, and walk about in sorrowful, mournful one could possible miss the fact that these "devout" people were fasting...


Fasting, though never commanded in the NT, was expected at the appropriate time for Jesus’ disciples (cf. 2:19; Matt. 6:16, 17; 9:15; Luke 5:35). Proper fasting is described in Isa. 58. Jesus set the precedent Himself (cf. Matt. 4:2). The early church fasted (cf. Acts 13:2–3; 14:23; II Cor. 6:5; 11:27). The motive and manner are crucial; the length and frequency are optional. OT fasting is not a requirement for NT believers (cf. Acts 15). Fasting is not a way of showing off one’s spirituality, but of drawing closer to God and seeking His guidance. It can be spiritually helpful.[1] In Matthew 6:16-18 Jesus instructs His followers not to  participate in the superficial, self-serving, hypocritical activities associated with fasting as practiced by the Pharisees...


In response to the question about fasting in verse 18, Jesus gives three illustrations explaining why His disciples were not currently fasting. 

·         An illustration taken from the wedding customs of the 1st century (vv.19-20)

·         An illustration about the folly of  a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment (v.21)

·         An illustration about the folly of putting new wine in old wineskins (v.22)


An illustration taken from the wedding customs of the 1st century (vv.19-20)

1.   Biblical scholars are divided over why Jesus used image of wedding celebration to explain His ministry...some say He did so because in OT the relationship between God and His people is often explained in terms of marriage...God is portrayed as faithful husband and His people as adulterous bride...the sins of Israel are described as adulteries and the exile in Babylon as a divorce...the prophets looked forward to the day when the unfaithful bride, Israel, would reconciled to the faithful husband, God...and some scholars say that when Jesus referred to Himself as "the bridegroom" in v.19 He was saying the hopes of the prophets would be fulfilled in Him...

2.   Others offer much simpler explanation of this illustration...there was no more joyous occasion in the first century than a wedding... wedding celebrations general lasted a week....after the official wedding ceremony, for an entire week there was period of feasting and celebration...the bride and groom were treated like a king and queen and this was generally considered to be the happiest week of their lives...during this week the bride and groom were cared for by their best friends referred to by Jesus in v.19 as "attendants of the bridegroom"...there was special rabbinical law which applied to these said, "All in attendance on the bridegroom are relieved of all religious observances which would lessen their joy."

3.   Now, with all that in mind, picture what is taking place in this preceding paragraph we see Jesus participating in banquet in home of Levi, the tax-collector... guest at banquet were other tax-collectors and doubt was rather loud, boisterous group...Jesus may have still been at the table or perhaps was just leaving Levi's home when this question of fasting came up...reasonable to assume since the issue came up at all, this banquet in Levi's home occurred on one of the traditional fast days -- Monday or Thursday... here were the Pharisees with their faces darkened with ashes, looking mournful and sad, confronting Jesus who is smiling and having a good time at a joyous banquet...and they ask Him, "Why aren't you and your disciples like us?"

4.   And, in effect, Jesus says to them, "Because you guys have got it all wrong!  Life is not a funeral; it's a wedding.  I didn't come to bring sadness but gladness.  Don't be mournful and stiff and somber.  Be full of by joy!"  Paul said same thing in Philippians 4:4 when wrote:  "Rejoice (be full of joy) in the Lord always; again I will say it, rejoice (be full of joy)."

5.   That's word many Christians need to hear and understand... many well-meaning Christians have somehow gotten the idea that being subdued and somber is the same as being spiritual... think more spiritual you are, the less joyful you words of one writer they mistakenly believe that "...spirituality makes you do things you do not want to do and keeps you from doing the things you want to do." (Hughes, The Gospel of Mark, p.77)  However, just the opposite is don't have to go around looking like just bit into a lemon to be spiritual person!...over and over again the NT describes the Christian life in terms of joy...more than 200 times on pages of NT will find the word "joy" or its corresponding verb "rejoice"...  Just think of all we have to be joyful about in Christ!

--we have been freed from the guilt and penalty of our sinfulness...

--we have been made right with -restored to relationship with-  the God who created us...

--we have the abiding presence of Lord in our lives through Holy Spirit...

--we have every reason to look to future with sense of hope and confidence because He has promised never to leave us or forsake us...

--we have the certainty of spending eternity in heaven...

      In light of all that, how can we help but not be full of joy!


An illustration about the folly of  a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment (v.21) - No one would be so foolish as to sew a new piece of unshrunk cloth onto an old piece...if, for example, someone patched a hole in a sail with a piece of new cloth, as soon as that piece got wet, then dried, it would shrink, creating a far larger hole than was previously present...


An illustration about the folly of putting new wine in old wineskins (v.22) - No one would be so foolish to put new wine into old wineskins... in first century there was no such things as bottles as we know was kept in bags made from the skins of goats...when these skins were new they had a natural elasticity to them...when new wine was put into a new wineskin, as it fermented and began to expand, the wineskin would expand with it...but if new wine were put into an older, more brittle wineskin, it would burst as the wine fermented...


1.      These illustrations have essentially the same meaning.  Jesus’ presence with His people was a time of newness (fulfillment) and signaled the passing of the old.[2] And the sad truth was that the Jewish religious legalists of the 1st century were so tied to their traditions they completely missed the fact that Jesus was the Messiah.  They were so concerned with the forms and rituals of religion, they missed the essence of it! 

2.      It is a tragic mistake to view religion in terms of stale ritual (such as legalistically fasting) rather than dynamic relationship with God.  That is exactly what the Jewish legalists of the 1st century were doing.  They were so wrapped up in their religious practices, they failed to recognize the presence of  the very God they were supposedly worshiping.  

3.      And if we are not careful, we can fall into the same trap.  We can get so absorbed with the mechanics of religion we miss the essence it...we can easily substitute outward religious acts –going to a place of worship, giving an offering, singing a hymn, reading the Scripture or whatever-- with the essence of religion which is personal relationship with God...

4.      The absurdity of that is like a football player so concerned with putting on the equipment and uniform he never gets into game... student who spends all time arranging books and supplies but fails to study...musician who constantly polishes his/her instrument but never plays...

5.      We must be careful not to confuse the wine Christianity with the wineskins of the book The Problem of Wineskins Howard Snyder makes this astute observation:  "There is that which is new and potent and essential -- the gospel of Jesus Christ. [This is the wine.]  And there is that which is secondary, subsidiary, man-made.  These are the wineskins, and include traditions, structures, and patterns of doing things which have grown up around the gospel."...and often have difficult time distinguishing between that which is the wine --the essence of religion-- and this which is the wineskin --the external trappings of religion--...

6.      When we confuse the wine with the wineskins, two things can happen, both of which are negative--

--first, we begin to think our particular expressions of religious commitment are the only correct ones...our tastes and preferences become the standard for all others...and like the people in this passage, we begin to question those and be judgmental of those who don't have some tastes we have or who don't do things like we do them...

--second, we become stale, mechanical, predictable and we lose the excitement of life in Christ...instead of an exciting journey, the Christian life becomes a dull, monotonous existence... and that is not how God intends for us to live...


A controversy about picking grain on the Sabbath (2:23-28)

It's impossible for us understand how rabid some of the Jews in 1st century had become in relation to the 4th commandment which simply says, "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy." Jesus' day these religious zealots had identified 39 classes and 1,531 sub-classes of work which were not permissible on the Sabbath...these regulations bordered on the absurd...for example--

·         Could not wear jewelry because that would be bearing a burden...

·         Could bandage wound but could not put medication on a wound because might cause healing take place on Sabbath...

·         Could have cotton in ears before Sabbath began, but if fell out could not replace it...

·         If wall fell on person could clear only enough debris to determine if alive or dead...if alive, could continue the rescue, but if dead had leave the body until after the Sabbath...

·         Many Jews would not defend themselves on the Sabbath and there are numerous instances in Jewish history where Jews were slaughtered because they refused to fight on that day...

·         Women were not allowed look into a mirror because might see grey hair, be tempted pluck it out, and that would be work...

One rabbi went so far as say only way really observe Sabbath was lie perfectly still for 24 hours!...against backdrop such as that this conflict between Jesus and Pharisees about observing the Sabbath occurred...


In light of such absurd applications of the 4th commandment, it is not surprising that Jesus was criticized by the Jewish legalists regarding His activities on the Sabbath. 


While walking on a footpath through someone’s grainfields one Sabbath, Jesus’ disciples … began picking some heads of grain to eat. This was legitimate (Deut. 23:25), but the Pharisees viewed it as reaping, an act of work forbidden on the Sabbath (cf. Ex. 34:21), so they demanded an explanation from Jesus.

2:25-26. In response Jesus appealed to Scripture and a precedent set by David and his companions when they were hungry and in need (1 Sam. 21:1-6). The words “his companions” and “in need” are key elements in this incident. David entered the tabernacle court, requested the consecrated bread  [The loaves weighed about 6 pounds each! There were 12 loaves replaced weekly and the week-old loaves symbolizing YHWH’s provisions for the twelve tribes of Israel were to be eaten by the priests only (cf. Exod. 25:23–28; Lev. 24:5–9). God made an exception to the rule in this case. Jesus is claiming to have the same authority as the High Priest and the same right as the soon-to-be king, David![3]]  (cf. Lev. 24:5-9) which was restricted by Mosaic legislation to the priests (cf. Lev. 24:9) and gave some to his men. Jesus used this action which God did not condemn, to show that the Pharisees’ narrow interpretation of the Law blurred God’s intention. The spirit of the Law in respect to human need took priority over its ceremonial regulations.

Mark stated that David’s action occurred in the days of Abiathar the high priest, but the high priest was actually Abimelech, his father (1 Sam. 21:1). A plausible explanation is to render the introductory phrase: “in the passage about Abiathar, the high priest” (cf. parallel phrase in Mark 12:26). This was a customary Jewish way of indicating the section of the Old Testament where a desired incident could be found. Abiathar became high priest shortly after Abimelech and proved more prominent than he, thus justifying the use of his name here.

2:27-28. With the words, Then He said to them, Mark appended two principles: (1) He quoted Jesus’ words that the Sabbath was instituted (by God) for mankind’s benefit and refreshment, not that people were made to keep burdensome regulations pertaining to it. (2) Mark concluded (so, in light of vv. 23-27) with an editorial comment (cf. v. 10) on the meaning of Jesus’ statement for his readers. The Son of Man (cf. 8:31) is Lord (Master) even of the Sabbath; He has sovereign authority over its use, as the next incident demonstrates.[4] This statement by Jesus is unique to Mark.  It is another sign that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.


A controversy about healing on the Sabbath (3:1-6)


3:1 “into a synagogue” This event is paralleled in Matt. 12:9–14 and Luke 6:6–11. The synagogue developed during the Babylonian Exile. It was primarily a place of education, prayer, worship, and fellowship. It was the local expression of Judaism as the Temple was the national focal point.

Jesus attended the synagogues regularly. He learned His Scriptures and traditions at synagogue school in Nazareth. He fully participated in first century Jewish worship.

It is also interesting that Jesus, apparently purposefully, acted in provocative ways on the Sabbath and in synagogue. He intentionally violated the Oral Traditions (i.e. Talmud) of the elders so as to enter into a theological confrontation/discussion with the religious leaders (both local and national; both Pharisees and Sadducees). The best extended discussion of His theology as it deviates from the traditional norms is the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matt. 5–7, especially 5:17–48).

“hand was withered” This is a PERFECT PASSIVE PARTICIPLE. Luke 6:6 says it was his right hand, which would have affected his ability to work.

3:2 “They were watching Him” This is IMPERFECT TENSE. It refers to the ever-watchful presence of the religious leaders.

“if” This is a FIRST CLASS CONDITIONAL SENTENCE, which is assumed to be true. Jesus did heal on the Sabbath in the synagogue right before their eyes!

“so that they might accuse Him” This is a hina, or purpose, clause. They were not interested in the crippled man. They wanted to catch Jesus in a technical violation so as to discredit and reject Him. Jesus acts out of compassion for the man, to continue to teach His disciples, and to confront the rule-oriented, tradition-bound, self-righteousness of the religious leaders.




“Get up and come forward!”




“Step forward”




“Come forward”




“Come up here to the front”




“Get up and stand in the middle”


This is literally “Rise into the midst.” This is a PRESENT ACTIVE IMPERATIVE. This was so that everyone could see.

3:4 The rabbis had a highly developed Oral Tradition (Talmud) which interpreted the Mosaic Law (cf. 2:24). They made rigid pronouncements on what could legally be done or not be done on the Sabbath. One could stabilize an injured person in an emergency, but could not improve his condition. Jesus’ question revealed the problem of the priority of their cherished traditions above human needs. This is always true of legalists!

“save” This is the Greek term sōzō. It is used in two distinct ways in the NT: (1) it follows the OT usage of deliverance from physical problems and (2) it is used of spiritual salvation. In the Gospels it usually has the first meaning (cf. 3:4; 8:35a; 15:30–31; even heal, cf. 5:23, 28, 34; 6:56; 10:52), but in 8:35b; 10:26; 13:13 it might refer to the second meaning. This same double usage is in James (#1 in 5:15, 20, but #2 in 1:21; 2:14; 4:12).

“life” This is the Greek word psuchē. It is so hard to define. It can speak of (1) our earthly physical life (cf. 3:4; 8:35; 10:45); (2) our feelings and self-consciousness (cf. 12:30; 14:34); or (3) our spiritual, eternal consciousness (cf. 8:36, 37). The difficulty in translating this term comes from its Greek philosophical usage, humans having a soul, instead of the Hebrew concept of humans being a soul (cf. Gen. 2:7).

3:5 “After looking around at them with anger” Mark’s Gospel is the most transparent in recording Jesus’ feelings (cf. 1:40–42, 43; 3:1–5; 10:13–16, 17–22; 14:33–34; 15:34). The deafening silence and moral superiority of the self-righteous religious leaders angered Jesus! This event continues to clarify 2:27–28.

“grieved at their hardness of heart” This is an intensified form of the term grief (lupē) with the PREPOSITION sun. It is only used here in the NT. Jesus identified with this man’s problem and need as He reacted negatively toward the religious leaders’ intransigence. They were unwilling to see the truth because of their commitment to tradition (cf. Isa. 29:13; Col. 2:16–23). How often does this happen to us?

The term “hardness” means calcified (cf. Rom. 11:25; Eph. 4:18).

“restored” This term (i.e. to restore to its original state) implies that the withered hand was an accident, not a birth defect. The non-canonical Gospel of Hebrews records the tradition that he was a mason who had come to ask Jesus to restore his hand so that he could return to work.

3:6 “The Pharisees went out” Luke 6:11 says “in a rage.” This is literally “out of the mind” (cf. II Tim. 3:9). See note on Pharisees at 2:16.

“immediately” See note at 1:10.

began conspiring” This is an IMPERFECT ACTIVE INDICATIVE used in the sense of the beginning of an action in past time. In v. 11 three IMPERFECTS are used to show repeated action in past time. These two usages are the major linguistic function of this tense.

“with the Herodians”Normally the very conservative and nationalistic Pharisees would have nothing to do with the politically oriented Herodians who supported the reign of Herod and the Roman occupation.[5]


It is obvious that the Pharisees cared more about religious laws, rules, and regulations than did about the people in this passage...they did not care that disciples were hungry...just concerned that they broke one of their Sabbath laws...and man with withered hand meant absolutely nothing to them...they just wanted make sure Jesus didn't help  him on Sabbath...


It is easy for us to condemn such religious extremism and ignorance and easy for us to marvel at absurdity of the Pharisees' position about the Sabbath...we easily think, "How could they let ritual and tradition and superstition and rules to become more important than and even harmful to people?"  But, the truth is, it is very easy for us be guilty of the same type of happens every time allow our petty arguments and differences about fine points of theology keep someone from hearing the simple, life-changing good news of Jesus Christ or every time we rush by another person in need and fail to do what we can to minister to that person...


Not sure where I first read it or who wrote it, but there's statement I copied a long time ago which has impacted my life...statement is, "We will not be judged by the number of church services which we attended or by the number of chapters in the Bible which we have read or even by the number of hours we have spent in prayer. [the Pharisees in this passage would exceed any of us in all those areas]  Instead, we will be judged by our commitment to God and our response to the needs of people."

[1] Utley, R. J. D. (2001). Vol. Volume 2: The Gospel According to Peter: Mark and I & II Peter. Study Guide Commentary Series (34). Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International.

[2] Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. (1983-). The Bible knowledge commentary : An exposition of the scriptures (Mk 2:21–22). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

[3] Utley, R. J. D. (2001). Vol. Volume 2: The Gospel According to Peter: Mark and I & II Peter. Study Guide Commentary Series (36). Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International.

[4] Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. (1983-). The Bible knowledge commentary : An exposition of the scriptures (Mk 2:25–28). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

[5] Utley, R. J. D. (2001). Vol. Volume 2: The Gospel According to Peter: Mark and I & II Peter. Study Guide Commentary Series (38–39). Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International.