One of the most powerful movies in recent years is the epic film Gladiator. At the beginning of the film, the aging Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius has a private conversation with Maximus, his most trusted and successful military commander. During this dialogue, the Emperor communicates his desire that Maximus succeed him as “Protector of Rome” instead of the Emperor’s evil son, Commodus. Shortly after this conversation, Marcus Aurelius privately gives Commodus the same information. But the ambitious Commodus doesn’t react well to the news. He quickly murders his father, thus securing the throne before anyone else learned of his father’s plans for Maximus. He then gives the order that Maximus and his family be disposed of.
Unbeknownst to the young Emperor, Maximus escapes and rushes off to save his family. But he doesn’t make it. He finds them murdered and his beautiful home destroyed. His desire to live now absent, he is gathered up by a slave trader and sold as a gladiator. But after experiencing success as a gladiator—and learning of the potential to fight in the Roman coliseum before Emperor Commodus—Maximus has renewed hope . . . and vengeance. The climactic moment of the movie occurs after the Emperor has witnessed this masked gladiator’s spectacular performance and, accompanied by his guards, walks out onto the floor of a packed coliseum to meet him. Let’s join the scene:
Commodus: “Why doesn’t the hero reveal himself and tell us all your real name. You do have a name.”
Maximus: “My name is gladiator.” (turning his back on the Emperor to show his disrespect)
Commodus: “How dare you turn your back on me! Slave! You will remove your helmet and tell me your name!”
Maximus: (removing his helmet while turning to face Commodus) “My name is Maximus Desimus Meridius, commander of the armies of the north, general of the fearless legions, loyal servant of the true emperor—Marcus Aurelius, father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, and I will have my vengeance in this life or the next!”
Commodus was offended by the gladiator’s audacity to turn his back on him. He wondered, “Who does this guy think he is? Does he have a right to do such a thing?” But after Maximus reveals himself, everyone in the coliseum responds: “Ohhhhh.” Now they realize who this guy is, and that he does have the right to do such a thing.
In Mark chapter two, Jesus is going to say and do such audacious things that those around Him are going to ask, “Who does this guy think He is?” Jesus will attempt to answer that question in four ways. And once He does, many present will respond: “Ohhhhh.” They will realize who this Guy is, and that He does have the right to say and do such things.
Recall that the purpose of the Gospel of Mark is “to evoke a lasting response in word and deed to the true identity of Jesus.” Today’s lesson clearly unpacks the true identity of Jesus for us.
In Mark 2:1-3:6 you should notice a great deal of controversy between Jesus and the religious leadership of His day. Pay careful attention to the response of these 3 groups:
Experts in the Law: Also known as scribes, these Jewish leaders were professional interpreters of Scripture. Scribes could also be Pharisees.
Pharisees: Numbering about 6,000 in first century Palestine, these defenders of Judaism were known for their knowledge of the Law and its application to life.
Herodians: Mentioned only three times in the Gospels (Mark 3:6; 12:13; Matthew 22:16), these Jewish leaders were politically loyal to Herod and the Herodian dynasty. They never appear without the Pharisees.
“Who does this guy think he is?” Jesus has four responses:
2:1 Now after some days, when he returned to Capernaum, the news spread that he was at home. 2:2 So many gathered that there was no longer any room, not even by the door, and he preached the word to them. 2:3 Some people came bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. 2:4 When they were not able to bring him in because of the crowd, they removed the roof above Jesus. Then, after tearing it out, they lowered the stretcher the paralytic was lying on. 2:5 When Jesus saw their faith,9 he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 2:6 Now some of the experts in the law were sitting there, turning these things over in their minds: 2:7 “Why does this man speak this way? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 2:8 Now immediately, when Jesus realized in his spirit that they were contemplating such thoughts, he said to them, “Why are you thinking such things in your hearts? 2:9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up, take your stretcher, and walk’? 2:10 But so that you may know that the Son of Man10 has authority on earth to forgive sins,”—he said to the paralytic— 2:11 “I tell you, stand up, take your stretcher, and go home.” 2:12 And immediately the man stood up, took his stretcher, and went out in front of them all. They were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
Anyone who saw this paralyzed man would have known his most urgent need, right? I’m confident that if a survey had been taken of those present that day, the consensus would have been that this man’s greatest need was physical restoration. Not so. Sometimes our greatest need is below the surface. Augustine once said, “One need not be paralyzed bodily to be paralyzed inwardly.” This man happened to be paralyzed both inwardly and outwardly. You and I may not be paralyzed physically, but each of us was born paralyzed inwardly. Our greatest need, regardless of our physical condition, is healing of our fallen spiritual condition.
Please note that Jesus does not ask, “Which is easier to do: forgive sins or heal?” Clearly the answer to that question would be that it is easier to heal. There have been many people throughout history with the ability to heal physically. However, no person in history has had the ability to forgive sins, let alone the audacity to claim that ability for himself.
Rather, Jesus’ question was, Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up. . .’ It is certainly easier to heal than it is to forgive sins, but it is easier to say that someone’s sins are forgiven than it is to say that someone is healed. That is, the statement “you are healed” is falsifiable—it can be proven wrong. Who can prove you wrong if you claim you have forgiven someone’s sins? It is an invisible act. Thus, Jesus proves He has accomplished the invisible act by likewise accomplishing the visible act.
Jesus claims for Himself the ability to forgive. Who alone but God has the authority to forgive? In characteristic form, Mark packages this story by first zooming in on Jesus, and then panning out to record the audience’s response. And they responded right—they accuse Jesus of blasphemy11—reproaching the name of God rather than honoring it. Only God could forgive sins. Only God could make such a claim without it being blasphemous. Unless Jesus is God, He is speaking blasphemy.
The point of this text is that folks had gathered to see Jesus work a miracle, and they left with the awareness that there may be more to this man than the ability to heal. The audience gathered that day was given pause: If the paralytic was healed when Jesus said he was healed, then perhaps his sins were forgiven when Jesus said they were forgiven. Then who is Jesus?
“Who does this guy think he is?” He is the Lord of Forgiveness.
2:13 Jesus went out again by the sea. The whole crowd came to him, and he taught them. 2:14 As he went along, he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the tax booth. “Follow me,” he said to him. And he got up and followed him. 2:15 As Jesus was having a meal in Levi’s home, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 2:16 When the experts in the law and the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 2:17 When Jesus heard this he said to them, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
Levi is the first of two individuals (along with Bartimaeus in chapter ten) pictured sitting by the road as Jesus passes by. Each one is called by Jesus, and each rises, steps onto the path behind Jesus, and “follows” Him on His journey.
Levi is a tax collector. Tax collectors were Jews who were despised for two reasons: 1) they collected taxes for the Roman government and were thus viewed as traitors to their own people, and 2) they were known for collecting more taxes than required, and pocketing the profits. They were the chief sinners according to first century Judiasm. And yet this tax collector receives a personal invitation to follow Jesus. Even worse, Jesus is seen eating—fellowshipping—with this guy and other well-known sinners! Who does this guy think He is?
Jesus answers this question by stating that He did not come to call the righteous (the self-righteous, that is), but sinners (those who recognized their need). That is THE prerequisite to forgiveness and redemption. God has never saved a person who didn’t think he needed saved, and in this Gospel the Pharisees didn’t think they needed saved. Just as a sick person goes to a doctor to receive health, so a sinner goes to Jesus to receive righteousness. If that sick person refuses to visit the doctor, he will remain sick. Likewise, if a sinner refuses to acknowledge his own sin, he will remain a sinner.
“Who does this guy think he is?” He is the Lord of Redemption.
2:18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. So they came to Jesus and said, “Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples don’t fast?” 2:19 Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they do not fast. 2:20 But the days are coming when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and at that time they will fast. 2:21 No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and the tear becomes worse. 2:22 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins will be destroyed. Instead new wine is poured into new wineskins.”
Fasting in the first century was closely associated with mourning. To fast with the bridegroom present at a wedding would be insulting to the bridegroom, who wished for you to celebrate with him upon the special occasion. Jesus is the bridegroom; the Man of honor.
New material is incompatible with an old tattered garment. It would be inappropriate to attempt to bring the two together. Jesus is the new, superior material. He is incompatible with the old garment—the Old Testament religious system. He is bringing about something entirely new.
New wine and old wineskins were incompatible, and it would be inappropriate to put new wine into old wineskins. Old wineskins were already stretched from the fermenting gas of the wine it had already carried. New wine would likewise release fermenting gas that would burst an old wineskin which was already stretched to its limit. Jesus is the new wine that proves incompatible with the old wineskins—the Old Testament religious system. Jesus is the Guest of honor about to affect radical change that will overshadow the Old Testament way of life. The time of fulfillment has come in Jesus. The old is past; new things have come by virtue of His arrival. The wedding, the garment, and the new wine are all symbolic of the newness Jesus brings. Jesus is going to establish the Age of Grace in place of the Age of the Law. Who is this that thinks He can overshadow the Old Covenant and inaugurate a New Covenant?
“Who does this guy think he is?” He is the Lord of Change.
2:23 Jesus was going through the grain fields on a Sabbath, and his disciples began to pick some grain as they made their way. 2:24 So the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 2:25 He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry— 2:26 how he entered the house of God when Abiathar was high priest12 and ate the sacred bread, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to his companions?” 2:27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. 2:28 For this reason the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
3:1 Then Jesus again entered the synagogue, and a man was there whose hand was withered. 3:2 They watched Jesus closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they could accuse him. 3:3 So he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Stand up among all these people.” 3:4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath, or evil, to save a life or destroy it?” But they were silent. 3:5 After looking around at them in anger, grieved by the hardness of their hearts, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 3:6 So the Pharisees went out immediately and began plotting with the Herodians, as to how they could assassinate him.
Jesus and the disciples are gleaning food from a grain field, which is entirely permitted by the Law—even on the Sabbath (Deut. 23:25). When the Pharisees object to such activity on the Sabbath, Jesus explains that the Sabbath was designed for mankind and not the other way around (just as the bread that David ate was made for mankind, and not the other way around).
Traditionally, only if one’s life were in danger could you rescue or attempt to heal on the Sabbath. There is no such restriction in the Old Testament. These are simply examples of the Pharisees placing additional legislation upon the Jews to protect them from breaking the Law.
First, Jesus explains the purpose of the Sabbath (it was made for people, not people for the Sabbath), and then He claims to be the Lord of the Sabbath.13 In fact the reason Jesus can state with authority the purpose of the Sabbath is because He is Lord of the Sabbath. After all, He authored it.
I recently attended a seminar at a conference with a friend of mine. As was the custom at these seminars, a thirty-minute paper was read arguing for or against some biblical or theological position. This particular paper was written in response to a recently-published article. After she had read her paper, the seminar leader invited ten minutes of questions from the 50 or so in attendance. My friend raised his hand and began to defend the published article against which she wrote. Back and forth they disagree until she finally cut him off.
“I beg your pardon,” she began, “but I think you’ve misunderstood the intention of the author of that article.” My friend replied, “I beg your pardon, but I am the author of that article.”
Doesn’t it make sense that the author would know best? If you know your New Testament, you know that Jesus—as an instrument of the Father—was actually the Creator of the universe. Thus when the Bible says that on the Seventh Day God rested from His work, it was Jesus—the eternal Second Person of the Trinity—resting from His creative activity. Jesus is the author of the Sabbath. Doesn’t it make sense that He would know its purpose?
And here we end, as those with the titles of authority plot to kill the one possessing genuine authority.
“Who does this guy think he is?” He is the Lord of Sabbath.
We conclude each lesson with one verse from the passage we’ve studied. We refer to it as a “meditation verse” to leave a broad range of uses: mediate, reflect, memorize, reread, etc. Our meditation verse for chapter two is Mark 2:17.
When Jesus heard this he said to them, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
8 Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are taken from The NET Bible.
9 Four times in Mark someone is healed because they act on faith: This paralytic and his friends (Mark 2), Jairus’ daughter and Jairus (Mark 5), the hemorrhaging woman (Mark 5), and Bartimaeus (Mark 10).
10 Fourteen times in the Gospel of Mark the designation “Son of Man” is used of Jesus. It is Jesus’ favorite self-designation in the Gospels.
11 The notion of “blasphemy” will occur seven times in Mark.
12 The priest at the time David took bread from the temple was actually Abimelech, the father of Abiathar (1 Samuel 21:1). This is a challenging exegetical problem. Some have attempted to rectify the problem with a translation that implies that this event took place “during the lifetime of Abiathar the high priest” rather than “during the priesthood of Abiathar the high priest.”
13 This must have been one of the boldest claims Jesus ever made. The Sabbath was protected aggressively by the religious leadership of the first century. It belonged to no man; the Sabbath belonged to Yahweh. It was His day, and His alone.