In all circles of life – both among Christians and non-Christians – there is an understanding that adversity reveals the true identity of a man. We hear this from coaches of sports teams who find themselves behind on the scoreboard late in the game and say something like, “Now, we’re going to see what we’re really made of.” Soldiers undergo at times excruciating conditions simply in training because their leaders want to make sure that they really know who these men are and how they’ll respond in times of conflict in war. Adversity reveals who men and women really are. And it’s true in the Christian life as well.
The author of Hebrews lists for us a number of heart-wrenching images in which believers faced great adversity and persecution. He tells us of individuals who were mocked, flogged, put in chains and imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two, killed with the sword, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated. He even makes reference to them going about in the skins of sheep and goats, and we know that at least in the days of Nero, believers were made to wear animal skins after which they were hunted or killed by wild animals. Yet the author of Hebrews concludes by telling us who these individuals were: they were men and women “of whom the world was not worthy” (Heb. 11:38).
Similarly, James reminds us that Abraham was shown to be a man of genuine faith when he was faced with the adversity of having to sacrifice his own son and that Rahab was shown to be a genuine believer when she was put in the pressure-filled situation of having to hide the Israelite spies. Again, it’s simply a reality in all of life that going through trying times often reveals our real character. Adversity reveals our true identity.
It is, therefore, quite fitting that one of the boldest proclamations of who Jesus is (of his identity) is found in a portion of Mark’s gospel in which six different episodes in Jesus’ life are linked together by the common thread of adversity. We find in Mark 2:1-3:12 stories about Jesus healing a paralytic man, calling another one of his disciples, being questioned about his disciples practice in regard to fasting, being questioned about what is lawful on the Sabbath, and having a demon cry out at him. When you hear that, you may think to yourself, “Why are we looking at all of these stories in one setting?” or “Why would someone try to put all of this in one sermon?” And I’ll admit that there are moments when I’ve asked myself those same questions.
But the answer is that it seems that Mark wants us consider these stories together because these seemingly unrelated stories have two themes that run through them. The first and most obvious one is that of adversity. In every story we read Jesus is questioned, challenged, accused, attempts are made to try to short-circuit his mission, and plans are even made as to how he might be killed. Adversity is a thread that links these stories together.
The second thread is not as explicit as that of adversity. However, I think it’s there. In fact, I think Mark uses the theme of adversity throughout all of these stories so that we’ll link them together, and then as we read all of them together, I think we’re supposed to notice how boldly and how clearly Jesus makes claims about his own identity in these texts. C. S. Lewis once answered the claim that some made that Jesus was simply a good man and moral teacher by saying that there was no way he could be thought of simply as a good man and moral teacher. He either had to be seen as a liar, lunatic, or the Lord. And the reason why is because he made audacious claims about himself, and one of the places he made the most audacious claims is in Mark 2:1-3:12.
Therefore, this morning I want to note for us as we look at each of these stories how in each case Jesus makes a bold claim concerning his own identity. In each of these texts he attests to who he really is. And my prayer is that as we hear this again and again that it would elicit faith in us and deepen our faith in Jesus of Nazareth, whom we know as our Savior and Lord. So, with that said, we first see in Mark 2:1-12 Jesus’ claim that he is God, the Son.
Jesus is God the Son
The story of Mark 2:1-12 is one many of us might know quite well. It seems to be one that I heard often growing up. The story begins on a day in Capernaum when Jesus had obviously come back in from a desolate place back into town, and he was preaching “at home.” We don’t know exactly where this “home” was. Perhaps it was Peter’s home, where Jesus was said to have gone a bit earlier in the gospel.
Regardless of where it was, people were coming to him. In fact, the crowds were so great that day that you couldn’t even get to the door. And Jesus was inside preaching. But it wasn’t going to be a day in which all Jesus would do was preach to the crowds, because some men were determined to see their paralytic friend healed. The problem, of course, was that they couldn’t get their friend on the stretcher to Jesus.
So they decided that they would climb up on the roof, rip their way through the roof, and lower their friend to see Jesus. And that’s what they did. As Jesus was preaching they began tearing through the roof, making a hole large enough so that they could lower their friend through it.
And it had to have been a crazy scene. I’d sure like to know if Jesus just went on preaching or stopped when debris from the roof started falling on his head. I’d like to know what his disciples were thinking. But Mark doesn’t tell us. Perhaps he doesn’t want to distract us from the main point of the story because it takes an interesting turn once the man is lowered into the house.
Mark tells us that as the man is let down before Jesus, Jesus does something that no one anticipated. Obviously, everyone thought he’d heal the man of his paralysis. I’m sure that’s what the friends thought, the paralytic thought, and the crowd thought. After all, they’d seen Jesus do such things before. But instead he said, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (2:5).
And instantly the scribes picked up on the boldness of this statement. They started questioning in their hearts why Jesus would dare say such a thing. They knew – rightly – that only God could forgive sins. And they were right. Therefore, they determine that he is blaspheming, claiming himself to be God – when of course there’s no way he could be God.
Moreover, Jesus knew what they were thinking. So he addressed it. But he didn’t address it how some might think. He didn’t say, “Now, I don’t want you all to misunderstand me because I can tell that some of you are thinking that I’m claiming nothing less than to be God by claiming to be able to forgive sins, and of course that’s not what I intended.” Jesus doesn’t say anything like that. Instead, he asks them a question: “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? (2:9). And, of course, the answer is to say, “Your sins are forgiven.” No one can tell if the man’s sins are forgiven, but if you tell him to take up his bed and walk, and he is not able to, then you’ve proven yourself to be powerless.
Therefore, Jesus says, “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, . . . I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home” (2:10-11). And Mark tells us, “And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We never saw anything like this!’” (2:12).
Do you see then what Jesus is saying here? He doesn’t correct their thinking that only God can forgive sins. They were right about that. Nor does he tell them that he’s not able to do what only God can do. Rather, he proves to them that he has the power to do what only God can do. Therefore, he is doing nothing less than claiming to be God: he is God the Son.
Lewis is therefore right, isn’t he? If Jesus claims to be equal to God, the Creator of the world who alone can forgive sins, then he is either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. But he can’t be called a good teacher. No one who claims to be able to do what only God can do can merely be thought of as a moral teacher. He is God the Son.
Yet, this is not the only claim Jesus makes in these verses. We also see that . . .
Jesus is the Savior of sinners
Beginning in 2:13, Mark tells us that Jesus calls another one to follow him. His name is Levi, whom we know as Matthew and who would ultimately write the first gospel account that we find in the New Testament. It is similar to the call of Simon, Andrew, James, and John. We are told that Jesus simply passed by Levi as he was sitting at his tax booth (for he was a tax collector), said “Follow me,” and Levi followed him.
But the heart of the story is found when Jesus goes to Matthew’s house and reclines with some of Matthew’s friends there who were tax collectors and sinners. And this was quite upsetting to the Pharisees so that they asked Jesus’ disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (2:16).
And it’s perhaps hard for us to see feel the tension here, but there are many layers. For one, to eat with pagans would have put you in a place where you could come into contact or perhaps eat unclean foods. Furthermore, eating with someone was a way of identifying yourself with someone, and tax collectors and sinners were not a good group with which to be identified with.
To be included in a group known as “sinners” would have minimally referred to not practicing Jewish laws, but perhaps meant they lived grossly immoral lifestyles. And tax collectors were those who worked for the Roman authorities and were corrupt, charging people more than Caesar demanded so that they could make a good living. And here Jesus was eating with these people. You could see why it would upset the Pharisees.
Yet, Jesus heard their question about why he was eating with such a group and answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (2:17).
Jesus’ argument is that those who need to be forgiven of their sins are those who are sinners. Those who think themselves righteous by their own merits do not see their need to be forgiven. This was no doubt a jab at the Pharisees who perhaps thought themselves righteous. But more than that, Jesus is claiming something about himself. He is telling them (and us) that he is the one who is the Savior of sinners.
Note what he says, “Those who are sick don’t have need of a physician but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” That is, Jesus is not comparing himself to one who recommends a doctor. I’ve recommended mechanics and doctors to people before but I don’t think anyone would think it makes sense for me to claim that I’ve fixed cars or made people well. I would even say that my role as a preacher is to do something akin to recommending a good doctor or good mechanic. After all, I’m not able to save anyone but merely to tell you about one and point you to one who can save you. Jesus, however, compares himself to the physician who makes the sick well, and the reason why is because he is showing us that he isn’t simply coming to point sinners to someone who might be able to save them. He is coming to save them himself. And this will be made clear throughout the gospel. Jesus continually points people to himself. It is by faith in him that they’ll have forgiveness. It is by trusting in him that they will know eternal life.
And he makes more claims. In 2:18-22, we see that . . .
Jesus is the promised Messiah
After facing questions about eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus faces more attacks and questions in 2:18-22. Mark tells us that some people challenge Jesus because the disciples of the Pharisees and the disciples of John fast while Jesus’ disciples are not fasting. And they ask this because they rightly understand that Jesus’ disciples are taking their cues from Jesus.
Now, again, here we might think that Jesus would say, “I’m glad you’ve brought this to my attention. We’ll start fasting like these other godly people.” Or perhaps we might think he would note that fasting as frequently as these others are doing is not strictly required in the law so that though Jesus’ disciples haven’t been fasting, they will start soon. They’re just not going to fast as often as others, and that’s okay because the law didn’t prescribe it. But that’s not what he answers.
Rather, he asks a question, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” (2:19). They would have known that the answer is, “Of course not.” After all, in this time and setting, when you went to a wedding, you were expected to celebrate. Coming to a wedding while fasting and mourning would have been as inappropriate as showing up at a funeral trying to be loud and celebrate. So, the answer is clear. The question is, however, how does that illustration relate to the issue?
Jesus answers, “As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast” (2:19). That is, Jesus tells them that this is not a time for his disciples – or anyone else for that matter – to mourn and fast if they realize who he is. He is the bridegroom, coming to gather his bride.
Now, to us, that might not mean much. But if we consider that God pictures himself as the groom and his people his bride in the Old Testament, then Jesus is claiming that he is God the Son. He is the Messiah who has come to gather a people, a bride, for himself.
And what Jesus wants them to know is that even as you wouldn’t put unfermented wine into old wineskins that have already been stretched out (because as soon as the wine ferments the wineskins will burst) or put a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment (for when the unshrunk cloth shrinks it will pull away from the old garment), so the old means of fasting that mourned and longed for God’s Messiah to come would no longer be fitting.
Sure, one day the disciples would fast when Jesus was taken away. This of course refers to his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. We will find ourselves fasting now as we long for his return and long for him to come and make all things right. But we don’t long as those in the Old Testament who were waiting for God to reveal his Messiah. We know who he is. He is Jesus of Nazareth, and he has changed history. Many practices in the Old Testament pointed to him and prepared the way for him. But now they fall away because he has come, and we must recognize that. Jesus is declaring by saying that he is the bridegroom that he is the promised Messiah. God’s Messiah has come, and his name is Jesus of Nazareth.
Yet Mark continues, providing for us another episode in which we see that . . .
Jesus is the fulfillment of the law
In 2:23-3:6, we have two stories relating to the Sabbath. In the Old Testament, God had commanded his people not to work on the Sabbath. But the Pharisees had taken this to an extreme by figuring out a number of things they thought were and were not acceptable on the Sabbath. If you dislocated or broke a bone on the Sabbath, it couldn’t be set. It had to wait until the next day because that would be work. You could travel a certain distance but not too far because that would be work. You couldn’t pluck a head of grain off a stalk and eat it on the Sabbath because that would be considered reaping a harvest, and that was surely work.
So, you knew there was going to be a collision when one day Jesus and his disciples were walking through some grainfields on the Sabbath and Jesus disciples were plucking heads of grain and eating them – and there was.
Mark tells us that the Pharisees were saying, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (2:24). And Jesus’ answer is masterful. First, he points out that their understanding of the law cannot account for an event that actually occurred in the Old Testament. He says, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but he priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” (2:25-26).
Now, when Jesus says, “Have you not read?” this is a dig at them. Of course they’d read it. They might have had it memorized. These were men who were supposedly committed to obeying the Scriptures. But it is a fair question because what Jesus is exposing is that they’ve interpreted the law in such a way that they can’t even account for why it was okay for David to do this. They should have read that story and said to themselves, “You know, when we’re making all these rules about what is acceptable and unacceptable, we may actually be missing something here because we would have condemned David’s actions while God doesn’t.” But they were running roughshod over the text in order to uphold their manmade traditions and interpretations.
Second, Jesus simply declares to them the nature of the Sabbath by saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (2:27). That is, God never gave the Sabbath so that you might actually need to starve to death in order to uphold it. He made it as a day to care for his people. He made it as a day on which they could rest since they would labor the other six days. It was a day made to minister to people, not enslave them. The Pharisees had misunderstood the whole point of the Sabbath.
We also are told of an event in 3:1-6 where Jesus went into the synagogue and there was a man there with a withered hand. And, of course, the Pharisees were watching Jesus, seeing if he would heal the man on the Sabbath. After all, that would qualify as work in their minds. So, Jesus, knowing their thoughts, asked them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” (3:4). Well, of course, the answer is that it’s right to do good and save life, not to harm or kill. So, Jesus heals the man, and ironically, these men who were supposedly dedicated to upholding God’s law went out and began to make plans as to how to kill Jesus. They were trying to accuse Jesus of violating God’s law when he was seeking to heal and do good and they were seeking to harm and to kill.
But let’s ask the question, “How is it that Jesus understands the law so well? How does he know God’s intent when he gave the Sabbath? How could he know what was in God’s mind when he gave that command?” Jesus answers in 2:28 when he says, “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” That is to say, Jesus is the very one to whom the Sabbath pointed. It is fulfilled in him. The reason he knows the purpose of the Sabbath command is because it was given in law to serve as a shadow to which he was the substance. Man will now be called to find rest in Christ himself. He is the Lord of the Sabbath – he is the fulfillment of God’s law. God’s law was given to point us to Christ who fulfills and perfectly embodies God’s holiness and the fulfillment of God’s commands.
Finally, Mark reminds us that . . .
Jesus is the Son of God
Mark has already told us about demons declaring that they know who Jesus is already. And Mark tells us that Jesus tells them to keep quiet when they do so. This happens again in 3:7-12. Jesus finds himself in a situation where the crowds are going to crush him because they’re pressing in on him, for he had healed so many. And whenever the unclean spirits saw him they cried out, “You are the Son of God” (3:11). And Jesus ordered them not to make him known.
Now, why do we include this story among the others in this section? I include it because I think this is another note of adversity. The demons are trying to short-circuit Jesus’ mission. The people don’t rightly understand that he is coming not to overthrow Roman rule but to give his life as a ransom for many, but the demons keep declaring who he is. No doubt, they are trying to short-circuit his mission, and this is why Jesus keeps silencing them.
However, these verses also serve to do what all the other events have done as well. They remind us of who Jesus is. After all, though the demons have evil motives, they are right. He is the Son of God. Mark began his gospel, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Mark reminds us in these episodes that Jesus is God the Son, the Savior of sinners, the promised Messiah, the fulfillment of the law, and the Son of God. And if that’s who he is, then we must bow our knee to him as our Lord and trust in him for our salvation. But how is it that we are able to be saved simply by turning from our sins and believing in him?
We’re reminded of the answer to that question back in the text when Jesus asked if it was easier to tell the paralytic to take up his bed and walk or to say, “Your sins are forgiven.” And in one sense, we acknowledged that it is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” because no one can see if you really have the power to make that happen. But in reality that statement was more difficult than we might imagine. After all, God does not forgive us of our sins merely by overlooking them. There must be payment for our sins. There must be a sacrifice for our sins. And Jesus came into the world to offer himself as that payment and that sacrifice. If man was to be forgiven of his sins, then Jesus would have to bear God’s wrath on the cross as he would hang there, drowning in his own blood. He would truly have to die before being raised on the third day. So, when Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven” to that paralytic he was saying more than anyone heard that day. He was saying, “I will die and bear God’s wrath for you.”
That’s why we’re able to have forgiveness through faith in Christ – because the one who forgives us died for us, paying the penalty for our sins, and being raised on the third day. And if we believe, his righteousness is ours. So, let us repent of our sins and believe in that good news today, remembering God’s grace to us as we come to the table. Amen.