Mark 2:18-22: The Lord of the Sabbath

Tonight I will be at Game 1 of the World Series.  I am really looking forward to being there, and I am not sure how I am going to get all my responsibilities done before it is time to leave.  But before I leave I want to post some expositional thoughts on the passage in Mark that we were looking at last week.


When Jesus arrived on the scene in chapter 1 He immediately began to proclaim a new message.  This new message was testified to by John in 1:2-8, and announced by Jesus in 1:14-15.  The arrival of this “new way” marked the beginning of a new era in God’s redemptive history.  As is true with any new era, this new era involved change.  The apostle Paul explained this change in Galatians 3:22-26:

But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.

Here we see that the Old Testament law was meant to be a tutor that would prepare and protect God’s people until the coming of Jesus.  The whole purpose of the law was to lead us to Christ.  In fact, when Jesus arrived he announced to the people that he came to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17).  Because of this, God intended for His people to look at the law in a different way after Jesus’ arrival.  For instance, the sacrifices commanded in the Old Testament are no longer practice.  This does not mean that the Old Testament outdated.  The Old Testament still reveals God’s moral standard, His character, redemptive plan, etc.  If we did not have the Old Testament to study then we certainly would not be able to understand the New Testament.  However, the way that we view the Old Testament in the church era has changed because we have seen its fulfillment in Christ.

People generally do not like change, and the people in Jesus’ day were no different.  Many people had a difficult time accepting Jesus’ new message.  These people did not understand that the Old Testament was leading them to Christ.  They should have read the Old Testament and realized that they were sinners in need of forgiveness through the Messiah. But instead, they though that they could use the Old Testament to earn God’s favor.  A great example of this if found in Mark 7:1-23:

The Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me. ‘But in vain do they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” He was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. “For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, is to be put to death’; but you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, whatever I have that would help you is Corban (that is to say, given to God),‘ you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.” After He called the crowd to Him again, He began saying to them, “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man. [“If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”] When he had left the crowd and entered the house, His disciples questioned Him about the parable. And He said to them, “Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.) And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. “All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”

Additionally, there were others who liked part of this new message of Christ but they were not prepared to completely give up the old way.  They thought that they could add to the work of Christ by keeping the laws.  In Acts 15:1 there was a group of people who claimed that “unless you are circumcised, according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”  They go on to say in 15:5 that “it is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”

These two groups of people simply did not understand the message of the Old Testament.  Their view of the law reflects man’s tendency to rely on himself.  This kind of works based salvation is how every other message besides the message of Christ has always worked.  John MacArthur frequently reminds us that “there are only two religions in the world: the religion based on human achievement and the religion based on divine grace.”[1] The old way is man relying on himself to earn God’s favor.  The new way is God’s grace through Christ.  As we look at Mark 2:18-22 we will see that we must resist the temptation to hold onto the old in any way, and we must accept the new way of Jesus.

I.  The Temptation to Hold onto the Old (v. 18)

a. The disciples not following Jesus

The first thing that we see in this passage is that there are some disciples who are not following Jesus.  A disciple was someone who would attach themselves to a particular teacher.  They would become a student learner of their teacher following him closely to glean knowledge in every area of life.  In verse 19 we see two particular groups of disciples.

First, there are the disciples of John the Baptist.  John had many disciples during his ministry.  After his arrest some of these disciples left John and began to follow Jesus (John 1:35-42).  However, many of these disciples remained attached to John even after his arrest and subsequent execution (Mark 6:29).  In fact, in Acts 19:1-7 we learn that these disciples continued to exists as a distinct religious group for quite some time.  These disciples just could not let go of John.  He was their teacher, and unfortunately he became their idol.  These men continued to attach themselves to John despite the John’s own teaching.  In Mark 1:7-8 John made it clear to anyone who would listen that there was one mightier than he was.  This “Mightier One” is Jesus, and it was John’s desire to see all men follow this “Mightier One.”  Yet, even after his disciples returned to Galilee they continued to consider themselves disciples of John.

These disciples of John should have accepted the “new message” that Jesus proclaimed “after John was arrested.” (1:14)  However, the temptation for them to hang onto the “old message” was too great.  They did not like the idea of change.  John was their hero.  They loved John’s message, and they were not willing to look beyond John to see the glory of Christ.

The disciples of John were not the only ones present in verse 19.  Marks tells us that there were also “Pharisees” and “disciples of the Pharisees” present.  We are pretty familiar with who the Pharisees were, but it is a little bit more difficult to determine who the disciples of the Pharisees were.  The only other place in the New Testament where this group of people is mentioned is in Matthew 22:15-16 where Matthew simply mentions them in passing.  It is difficult to determine who these guys were because Pharisees did not normally have disciples.  They were not teachers.  They scribes were the teachers not the Pharisees.  There are several different explanations for who they were, but it may be that these individuals were disciples of the “scribes of the Pharisees” that we read of in 2:16.  These men were both scribes and Pharisees and so it would make sense for them to have disciples.  But however you explain it, it is clear the Pharisees and the disciples of the Pharisees both had a hard time accepting the new message of Jesus.  But it was for a slightly different reason than the disciples of John.

John’s disciples read the Old Testament and recognized their inability live up to the standard that it set.  That is why they participated in the baptism of repentance that John was teaching (1:4).  The problem, however, was that they did not accept Christ.  They did not want anyone taking the place of John, and they felt like the answer to their sin problem was to live an ascetic life.  On the other hand, the Pharisaic group read the Old Testament and refused to acknowledge their sin.  They rejected Jesus because they saw no need for him.  They didn’t want a spiritual Savior; they wanted someone who would punish all those who were not as righteous as they were (cf. 2:13-17).

Both of these groups were committed to the old way of works salvation, and they represent all of those who to this day are committed to the old way.  Like John’s disciples there are many who are willing to acknowledge their own spiritual imperfections, but they there answer to the problem is simply to work harder.  They think that they can overcome and make-up for what they have done in the past.  Others, like the Pharisaic group, think that they are inherently good and have not need for a Savior.  Because of who they are they think that they deserve the favor of God.

b. The disciple’s practice of fasting

These two groups of disciple, who really opposed each other in every other respect, were both committed to the old way of works salvation.  This commitment to the old way manifested itself on the area of fasting.  Mark tells us that both of these two groups were fasting.  They may have even been fasting while Jesus and his disciples were eating with the sinners and tax collectors (2:15-17).  The question is why were they fasting?

To take part in a fast simply means to abstain from food for some period of time.  Such an act was supposed to be an outward sign of an inner attitude (similar to John’s baptism), and it was usually associated with sorrow and repentance.

Surprisingly, the Old Testament only required one fast a year (Leviticus 16:29ff).  This fast was associated with the Day of Atonement, and it was to be a time of repentance and reflection upon sin.  Any other fasts that a person wanted to participate in were totally optional.  As time went by the people began to add more and more days of fasting to the calendar.  It got to the point where the Pharisees of Jesus day boasted that they fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12).  However, these fasts were not outwards signs of an inner attitude.  These fasts were simply outward works of pride.  In fact, Jesus warned of these empty fasts in Matthew 6:16-18:

“Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

Apparently it was not just the Pharisaic group that had fallen into this trap.  John’s disciples were also caught up in these fasts.  Neither of these groups were participating in these fasts out of genuine heart for God.  Their focus was on themselves, and these outward works became so important to them that they were willing to unite with the hated Pharisees in order to question Jesus.  Don’t underestimate just how amazing this is. Remember, the Pharisees had been open and fierce opponents of John (John 4:1).  For these two groups to unite on anything would have been like Republicans and Democrats coming together in full agreement on an issue.

The issue that brought these two together was the issue of fasting.  The disciples who did not follow Jesus could not understand why the disciples who followed Jesus were not fasting.  They were so caught up on external things that they completely missed the spiritual significance of Jesus’ new message.  They refused to accept Jesus to the point that they actually questioned the Messiah.

[1] John MacArthur, Fallen from Grace, Part 1: Galatians 5:1-6. Sermon preached by John MacArthur.  GTY 1665 (audiocassette).