The Perfect Servant in Mark’s Gospel: His Activity

Our last article introduced a section of Mark’s Gospel dealing with the Activity of the Perfect Servant (1:14-8:21). This section contains three cycles of activity. The first focuses on the Lord’s Authority. Having considered His Authoritative Actions (1:21-2:12), we now turn to His Authoritative Answers (2:13-3:6).

Authoritative Answers (2:13-3:6)

Service for God will not go unchallenged. The Perfect Servant soon drew the ire of the religious elite. Attempting to undermine His authority, they raised challenges against Him and His followers. The challenges show that while the scribes and Pharisees were experts in the Old Testament letter, they had no grasp of its intent. They knew the Word of God technically, but they did not know God intimately. Pharisees were separatists, traditionalists and legalists. The Lord answered their challenges (2:13-28), and then exposed their hypocrisy (3:1-6).

The Separatists Misunderstood Separation (2:13-17)

Levi, recently called by the Lord, arranged a social gathering with a spiritual goal. Inviting the Lord and His disciples to his home, he also gathered a crowd of old work colleagues and friends. Looking on at a respectable distance were “scribes and Pharisees” (2:16). They were scandalized – this would-be Teacher was socialising with sinners! They indignantly asked: “How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners?” (2:16).[1]

The Pharisees promoted physical separation. They thought that being holy necessitated avoidance of social contact with people they branded sinners: the irreligious and immoral. Seeing the Lord comfortably conversing with such people outraged their sense of propriety. It also gave them opportunity to criticise this “upstart.”

The Lord’s defence was simple: “They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (2:17). He was not associating with sinful people for His good, but for their good. Just as a doctor must associate with the sick, so the Saviour must draw near to sinners.

The Lord Jesus was the most separated Servant. His heart was fully devoted to God, and He was wholly separate from evil even though He was often found in the company of very sinful people. True service for God is not helped by isolation. Evangelism demands devotion to God, separation from sin, and close contact with sinners. Those whom the Pharisees hated, avoided and criticised, the Lord loved, contacted and blessed.

The Traditionalists Misapplied Tradition (2:18-22)

John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, practiced ritualistic fasting. For those who were serious about their religious beliefs, fasting was common practice. It was noticed that the Lord’s disciples were not stringent in their observation of fasting. So the Lord was challenged again: “Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not?” (2:18).

There is a tremendous force with tradition. The “done thing” can soon become the “expected thing,” and people are quickly judged by their observance, or not, of a tradition. The Pharisees believed that because ritualistic fasting was observed most of the time by most of the correct people, it should be continued for all time, and applied to everyone.

The Lord made his hearers think more deeply. Was fasting appropriate for a wedding? No. Weddings were times for feasting, not fasting. Was fasting proper during a bereavement? Yes. Fasting expressed a sorrowful spirit. The Lord showed that, contrary to the practice of the Pharisees, fasting was never intended to be a routine ritual; it was meant to accurately reflect a state of heart. Fasting had a purpose but if it was unsuited to the present circumstance, it was useless.

The Lord’s treatment of tradition is enlightening. It is not necessary to do something simply because it was done in the past by others. Our practice should be based upon Scripture. While truth should never be discarded, tradition, if unsuitable or unhelpful, should be.

The Lord’s further illustrations, emphasising the foolishness of mixing old and new (2:21-22), are warnings. Ritualistic traditions are inconsistent with the joy and potency of Christianity. Imposing such traditions will only produce problems.

The Legalists Misinterpreted the Law (2:23-28)

The third challenge from the Lord’s opponents occurred when His disciples, passing through corn fields, plucked and ate ears of corn (2:23). The critical observers asked, “Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful?” (2:24). The Sabbath was a big deal to the Pharisees. What God intended as a day of rest, reflection and refreshing, they spoiled with stifling restrictions and regulations.

The main point of the Lord’s answer is clear. In David’s necessity, he took bread, which the law had reserved for the priestly family. He was not regarded as guilty. Why? Because the intention of the ceremonial law was not to leave people hungry. Using the law to leave a person starving was to misinterpret its intent. Likewise, the Sabbath was for man’s benefit. By adding to it, the Jews had turned a blessing into a burden. They had missed the intent of the Sabbath. This the Lord set about to restore.

We must interpret God’s commands according to their original intent. The Pharisees and scribes focused on technical issues and forgot this. As a result, they misinterpreted the law, applying it incorrectly.

The Concluding Challenge (3:1-6)

The Lord entered a synagogue on the Sabbath to find a man in need of healing. The Pharisees watched. What would Jesus do? He called to the man, “Stand forth” (3:3), and issued His challenge to the observers: “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life or to kill?” (3:4). While the Lord wanted to heal the man, the Pharisees wanted to destroy the Lord. Which attitude was more in keeping with God’s commands? Which properly reflected the intent of God’s law?

Meticulous observance of extra-biblical traditions is no substitute for a compassionate heart. The Pharisees did not care for the man, and they positively hated the Lord.

The Perfect Servant manifested deep concern for sinners, set aside unhelpful traditions, applied God’s Word consistent with its purpose, and magnified compassion over legalism. He knew what He was doing, and why. Are we more like the Pharisees or the Perfect Servant? A searching question indeed.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.