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(Mark 2:18 - 3:6) Splitting Hairs

(Mark 2:18 - 3:6) Splitting Hairs

by Stephen Davey
Series: Sermons in Mark
Ref: Mark 2:18–28; 3:1–6

The Pharisees were professional hair splitters! They had a rule for everything, and they tried desperately to trap Jesus in the act of breaking one. But Jesus showed them why their laws were not liberating but enslaving.




(Mark 2:18 - 3:6)

 “Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting.  Some people came and asked Jesus, ‘How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?’  Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?  They cannot, so long as they have him with them.  But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.  No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment.  If he does, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse.  And no one pours new wine into old wineskins.  If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined.  No, he pours new wine into new wineskins.’  One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, 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?’  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.’  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.’  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.  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.  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.  Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.”  (Sang “Jesus Name Above All Names”)  You may be seated.

(Pastor Davey begins here) The Pharisees were professional hair-splitters.  They had been doing it for centuries.  As a matter of fact, they had taken the clear cut presentation of  the Mosaic law and, from that, had developed, what they called, generations of laws.  So that the Mosaic system had become a prison house with bars of traditions and jail cells of regulations.  So that now the Jewish people were in bondage.  As we have been studying through the Gospel of Mark, we come to a passage, this morning, that is really nothing short of hand-to-hand combat between Christ and the Pharisees.  You see, Jesus was an individual who was a revolutionary.  And He was presenting the Jewish people with a declaration of their independence.  And the Pharisees were not going to take that lying down.

Now, this passage raises several problems as Jesus begins to write out for these people their independence.  And so, I’ve outlined for you, in your notes in the welcome packet if you care to look along, several problems.  The first of which I call, the problem of piety.  Let’s go back to chapter 2, verse 18.  They raised the question, as they are observing the disciples.  The disciples were not fasting and that created a tremendous problem in their minds and they said, “Look, the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting but yours don’t.  Now, why aren’t you conforming to the status quo?”  And so Jesus Christ gives them a fascinating illustration to explain it.  He says, “Can the children of the bride chamber fast while the bridegroom is with them?  No, as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.”  Now, according to the Mosaic structure, fasting was required only one day a year and that was on the day of atonement.  But the Pharisees began to embellish this until, finally at the time of Christ, they are fasting every Monday and every Thursday.  And to make it obvious, so that everyone could see that they were pious, they would put a white dust on their face and then they would wear old clothing and they would mope around.  “You see, I am fasting.”  And it was impressive.  Why, as impressive as it would be if someone told you that they arose at 4 a.m. and prayed.  That’s impressive.  But you see, there is a difference between piety and intimacy and they had missed the boat.  And so they came across Jesus Christ, who’s disciples were not fasting, and they couldn’t figure it out.  And so Jesus then goes back into the Old Testament economy and the Jewish marriage system and pulls from that a powerful illustration.  You see, when a man was married, in that economy, he had a week of feasting.  They didn’t go off on honeymoons, like we do today.  They would stay at home for a week and the bridegroom would invite his closest male companions to celebrate with him and there was a week of feasting.  And so, in this hard life filled with work and toil, this was the week when they all rejoiced and feasted.  And so Jesus Christ says, “Look, I am the bridegroom.  So, as long as I am here, why should there not be anything but feasting?  Why mope around?  Christianity is joyful.”  And that was totally new revelation to them.

And to drive the point home, He gives them two other thoughts.  Look at verse 21, “No man also seweth a piece of new cloth on an old garment”.  The word “new,” properly translated, as you heard read, was an unshrunk piece of cloth.  In that day, it would have been foolish to take an old garment that needed a patch and take a piece of unshrunk, or wet that had not yet dried, piece of cotton cloth and sew it on to the garment, wherever the patch was needed.  Why, as soon as it was washed, that new cloth would shrink and it would tear away that old clothing.  So it would worse than before.  What was supposed to create a solution, the patch, would make even a more difficult problem.

He goes on to give another illustration.  He says, “No man putteth new wine into old bottles” - or wineskins - “the new wine” - will break or -“burst” - the wineskin.  Now, the wineskins were made of goatskin and they were sewed at the edges and along the top to make a water tight bag.  Now, as wine, that was fresh, was put into that bag, not yet being fermented, it would then begin to expand as it aged, giving off gasses.  And these new wineskins were flexible so they would give with the aging wine.  It would be foolish to take an old wineskin that had become hard and brittle and put new wine in that because, as soon as the new wine began to expand, that old wineskin could not handle it and it would just explode, losing wine and the skin.  And so, Jesus Christ, I think, is making a clear cut point that I want you to nail down in your minds.  That is that Jesus does not want to dress up the old system.  He didn’t want to do that.  He wants to create an entirely new system.  He isn’t coming along to patch up the old garment, the old covenant.  He is coming along to present a new garment, a new covenant.  You see, the Pharisees would have, more than likely, accepted a few of Christ’s teachings.  “Yea, I like that one.  Oh, that’s a good one.  And, here’s a good one over here.”  And the would have inculcated that into their old garments.  And Jesus Christ said, in effect, “No way.  With Me, it’s an entirely new system.”  Because these men were so pious, because these men had the people under so much bondage, they could not handle the newness of His message.

There was another problem.  Not only the problem with piety but the problem with regulations.  Notice verse 23, “And it came to pass, that He went through the corn fields on the sabbath day: and His disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn.” - or of grain.  Now, in that day, they had a welfare system.  The welfare system would take care of the poor.  That means that they would allow the poor to come along, as they traveled, or to come up to the edge, and they could pick as much as they could eat.  Now, they had a rule, back then, that you couldn’t bring a bucket or you couldn’t take a sickle to the field but you could take whatever you could hold in your hands.  So they were not breaking, necessarily, a civil law.  They were hungry.  “The Pharisees said unto Him,” - in verse 24 - “Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful?” You see, the issue was not whether or not they could take the grain.  The issue was, they were doing it on the sabbath.  You need to understand, ladies and gentlemen, that, to the Pharisee, to the religious world, that sabbath had become the thing that they worshipped.  And Jesus Christ comes along, as if He doesn’t care, and begins doing all of these different things.  But they have a purpose.  And so, they come up to Him and they begin to ask the question.  Now, the problem is that they had added to the sabbath laws.  It was not unlawful, look at verse 25, “and He said unto them, ‘Have ye never read what David did’”.  And I could just feel them saying, “Ouch.”  David was their hero.  He was the one that they idolized.  If you wanted to make a point, use David as an illustration.  Look at what he did - “when he had need, and was” - hungry - “and they that were with him?  How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread”.  Now, this was almost near blasphemy if anything.  You see, the shewbread was in the Holy Place.  And the shewbread would be in the form of twelve loaves of bread.  And every sabbath day they would take twelve fresh loaves, replace the old loaves, and the priests, only the priests, would eat the old loaves of bread.  You didn’t touch that, that was holy stuff.  And so, David is hungry and he comes in with his men and they go up to those twelve consecrated loaves of bread and they devour them.  But God doesn’t, “Boom,” strike him dead.  The point is this, David violated a divinely ordained ceremonial provision.  Because he had need, it was tolerable.  Jesus Christ is violating a manmade regulation.  “If David could do THAT, wake up, there is nothing wrong with this.”  But the problem is, they had had so many regulations developed.

In fact, I was in my study looking at a few commentaries who added some of these additional sabbath laws.  The Mosaic system said, “You don’t work on the sabbath day.”  It was a protection.  It was something that they were able to do so that they stopped work.  It protected them from greed, as well.  A man could not work, in that economy, seven days a week.  It’s not advisable that you do either.  You need time off.  They would work constantly but, when the sabbath came, it was time off.  So it protected them physically, as well.  Now, the Pharisees came along, though, and added thirty-nine categories to this no work law.  No work meant, then, that you couldn’t plow.  So that was kind of the son law.  And then they called it the grandson law that meant, if you couldn’t plow because you couldn’t work, you cannot create a furrow in the ground.  And then a great grandson law meant the you couldn’t drag a chair across the ground because the legs of it would make a furrow in the dirt and that would be plowing, that would be digging.  You couldn’t carry a burden.  So they developed this grandson and great grandson tradition until finally, a tailor couldn’t carry his needle.  Or a scribe couldn’t carry a pen.  You see, the people were in bondage and Jesus Christ is coming along to refocus their perspective on the essentials.

Now, let me say this before passing, and this is a very difficult thing, I think, to understand so I want to illustrate it.  Jesus Christ is not being sacrilegious.  He isn’t coming across with a hammer and smashing the Mosaic system.  Now, it is time for the Mosaic system to die.  But there are several ways that you can kill something.  You can either smash it or, in the cause of Christ, you can allow it to fulfill itself.  Let me illustrate it this way, you can take an acorn and you can kill it two ways.  You can take out a hammer and you can smash it.   Or, you can plant it in the ground and allow it to grow into an oak tree and, by it’s death, it is fulfilled in something far more wonderful than an acorn.  The Pharisees were worshipping the acorn.  Jesus Christ was coming along and saying, “Look, I’m going to present something far more wonderful.  It’s called GRACE.  Don’t gather around an acorn, law.  Let it die.  Let it fulfill itself into the beautiful, strong, shade, protecting of an oak tree.”  But they couldn’t handle it and so they rejected that as well.

Notice, the third problem, it’s given to you in your notes, and that’s in chapter 3.  “And He entered again into the synagogue; and there was a man there which had a withered hand.  And they watched Him”.  The word “watched,” in the original, means, “to slyly look through the corner of your eye.”  Here are all these long bearded, robed men sitting there.  They knew Jesus was coming.  They began to watch Him, ready to accuse.  “And He saith unto the man which had the withered hand, ‘Stand forth.’”  Now, this is fascinating.  I just wish we could go back.  But let’s try to recreate what happened.  A man with a withered hand, of course, would be one considered very sinful.  He would worship but he would have the back seat, if he were allowed into the synagogue at all.  And the chief seats, of course, were given to these pious men, who wore the long robes and were the scribes and the Pharisees of that day.  Now, on the sabbath day, they had concocted these grandson laws so that you could not apply any kind of medicine to anyone, unless it was life or death.  They said that you could not pour water or apply any cold thing to, maybe, a sprained ankle.  You, in fact, had to bear it until the next day.  So, no medicine.  I’d be dead in the water today if I couldn’t chew on a Sucrets.  Well, that was against their law.  And so, they’re looking at Jesus now, “Is He going to break our traditional regulation?”  And so, Jesus notices, of course, this man.  It’s almost like they planted this guy by the door.  Jesus gets out in the middle and He says, “Look,” to this man, “Stand forth.” - or, literally, “Come center stage.  Come right forward, right in the middle of all of these men.”  It’s as if He doesn’t want anybody to miss it.  He doesn’t want this thing to be passed by, by either the people who have come to worship or by these doctors of the law.  And so, He brings this poor man right into the middle of everybody.  His hand is curled.  He’s not able to use it.  In fact, an extra biblical writing that has not survived time, only just a few fragments called, “The Gospel To the Hebrews,” records that this man was a stone mason and his hands were his livelihood.  So, with his hand being like that he could not work.  Thus, he was reduced to being a beggar.  We’re not sure if that is true but Jesus Christ calls him forward.  And then, He pauses.  The man is right there in the middle of the floor, and He turns to all of these men and He asks them questions.  He says, “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil?”  Now, they’re stumped.  They can’t say, “It’s lawful to do good.”  Because then, Jesus would say, “Great!  You agree with this.”  And He would heal the man.  And if they said, “Well, no it’s not.”  Then they would be agreeing that you could do evil on the sabbath.  And He says then, “Is it lawful” - “to save life, or to kill?”  The fascinating thing with this is that Jesus knew, in their hearts, they were plotting His death.  He exposed them.  He ripped the masks off.  And I can just imagine the commotion.   They’re just fidgeting around, you know, gathering their cloaks about them and just wishing they could take off.  He pinned them to the wall.  And after doing that, “He had looked round about” - verse 5 - “on them with anger, being grieved”.  The word, “anger,” the tense is temporary.  But the word for “grieved,” is permanent.  That means that Jesus Christ was temporarily angry but yet, His overall feeling was one of grief.  These men were bound and they were worshipping their chains.  He was “grieved for the hardness of their hearts”.  The word “hardness,” is “poros,” a word used for marble.  Marble, impressive, yes.  Finely polished, oh yes.  Expensive, yes.  These men were all of those things.  And yet, they were hard like marble.  And then, He turns back to this man, who is probably trembling, embarrassed about being on center stage, and He says, “Stretch forth thine hand.”  And the man extended his hand and it’s, at that very moment, like energy pulsed into his fingers and he opened his hand for all to see.  He probably moved it around a couple of times and looked at it in amazement and then rejoicing.

Now, the problem was the traditions that had been developed that would not even allow Jesus Christ to do this tremendous work of healing.  They had the motto, I think, over the synagogue door, if you came in, you’d look up there and it would read, “We’ve always done it this way.”  I think that was their church logo.  You see, the problem was that the traditions had blinded them, to such a degree, that they could not see a man who had just been healed.  Their traditions had blinded them so that they could not see, in this act, the power of Jesus, that He was who He said He was.  They couldn’t see it.  And so they left, in verse 6.  They were furious.  They were bound to the past, the way it always was.  And it was sapping the life right out of them.

I understand this just a little bit better because I was in a church, as a college student, that was bound to it’s past.  A tragic situation.  A little chapel on one of the hills in Tennessee.  The name of the hill, or the mountain, was Jump Off Mountain.  And the name of the church was Jump Off Baptist Church.  Aren’t you glad I didn’t like that name?  And I would drive up there, it took about 45 minutes, in a borrowed car and I would preach to about 15 people who would come.  And my goal, for that sermon, was to keep everyone awake.  If I could keep, especially one man, awake, it was an accomplishment.  I’ll never forget, they had an older man in the church who had been there for 25 years.  He taught the adult class and he, basically, ran everything.  His wife played the piano.  And I would soon learn that this man was, kind of, the head, the titular head with a clenched fist.  Over the choir loft, which sat, I think, about six people, there was a banner and the banner was decrepit.  It had become frayed and the paper had yellowed.  It was all crinkled up and, in fact, had become cracked.  It looked like it had been up there for a long time.  So, I came up with the clever idea that we’re going to give this church some momentum.  Let’s change this logo and put up a fresh one.  So, I contacted an artist and we began working through.  And I not realizing, in my brashness, that there were proper procedures to go through.  Well, I took that thing down before church, one Sunday morning, and was getting ready to put up this new, beautiful logo.  I can’t even remember what it was.  And I was putting that thing up, kind of leaning on one of the choir pews nailing away, and in walked this man.  And he walked in about halfway and he stopped.  And I turned around to look at him and his face was red as a beet.  And he looked at me and he said, “Young man, that’s been up there for 22 years.”  And he stormed out of that church and slammed the door behind him.  I wanted to say, “It looks like it’s been up here for 100 years.”  Change was not part of it but I learned a valuable lesson.  The valuable lesson is that if you worship the past, you forfeit the future.

Let’s look at the reaction of the Pharisees.  They did three things.  You could jot into your notes, first of all, they left and they were furiously angry.  You could translate it, “They left in a huff.”  They were so mad that Jesus Christ had exposed them and their ridiculous traditions that they left angrily.  Secondly, they began to organize a death plot.  They, “straightway took counsel”  - “boule” - “with the Herodians against Him”.  Thirdly then, they formed an alliance.  It’s fascinating, as you study, that the Herodians were bitter enemies of the Pharisees.  They didn’t like each other.  They couldn’t stand each other.  But yet, you find the Pharisees forming an alliance with this politically zealous group.  You see, the Herodians wanted Herod back on the throne, so they were called the Herodians.  The Pharisees wanted to get rid of Jesus so they presented, probably, the thought that Jesus was a political threat.  So they joined forces to destroy Christ.  How sad that they missed the point that Jesus Christ had made.

Now, by way of application, in closing, what should we learn today?  First of all, from the Pharisees.  Let me give you a couple of thoughts to jot down.  First of all, we should learn from them that piety is never a substitute for spirituality.  You see, piety is what you do when others are watching.  Spirituality is what you ARE, regardless of who’s watching.  And piety, though they were mistaken, could never substitute intimacy with God.  You cannot earn intimacy.  You do not work for spiritual growth.

Secondly, regulations can be protective but they are never productive.  Now, don’t jump off the end of the peer.  Regulations can be protective.  In fact, God had given this nation the sabbath law to protect them.  There are regulations that we should follow to protect us.  But understand, so that you don’t fall into the same Pharisaical trap, that that regulation, though protecting, can never produce spirituality.

What should we learn from the teaching of Christ?  Two thoughts.  First of all, that Christianity is a replacement, not an addition.  Christianity replaces fear with freedom.  In this case, it replaces fasting with feasting.  A permanent melancholy with a permanent joy.  Christianity is intended to replace, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature:  old things are” - continually - “passed away; behold, all things are become” - continually - “new.”  Don’t add Christ to your life.  Don’t add it on, you know, tack it on to the end, “I’ve got all of these things AND I go to church.”  Christianity is not replacement.  It is not something to be added to.  It is life itself.

Secondly, Christianity never lives in the past.  It lives for the future.  I thank God for Martin Luther, who one day came up with a brand new idea that was considered heresy - congregational singing, in four part harmony.  I thank God for William Carey, who came up with a brand new idea - foreign missions.  And he went to India, without any support from the religious world.  I thank God for Tyndale and Wycliffe, who gave their lives for some new idea - and it was putting the Bible into an understandable translation so that the plowboy, as they put it, could understand.  I thank God for C. T. Stud (?), who shook the complacent moorings of the Anglican church when he wrote, “Some wish to live within the sound of church and chapel bell.  I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.”  Boy, I’m thankful for new ideas.  Not new doctrines.  Not a vacillation where it is important.  But an ability to live for the future without worshipping the past.

This morning, I want you to evaluate your own walk with Christ.  Let me ask you a question, in closing.  Would you say, “I used to be close to the Lord.  The Bible used to be alive.  I can remember a day when I would study the word and it was great, back then.  I used to tell people about Jesus Christ but it just seems like I just don’t do it anymore.”  My friend, you are bound to your experiences in the past and Jesus Christ wants the experience in the present and for the future.  But to have that, He cannot be added on to your life.  He must be your life.  Jesus Christ offered these people:  freedom, forgiveness, and fulfillment.  And they rejected Him.  He’s offering the same thing today:  freedom, forgiveness, fulfillment.  I trust you’ve accepted Him.                                                   

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