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New Wineskins

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Mark 2:1-3:6


How many times in your life have you had to shift your way of thinking? Our world has changed so much in the last 100 years that many of us have had to shift the way we approach things. There may be a few of you here who still remember doing farm work with horses. I actually remember visiting my uncle’s farm for a week in summer and putting up hay by piling it on a wagon pulled by horses. Today, tractors are equipped with auto steer and GPS and the way you think about what can be accomplished and how much land you can farm has changed significantly.

I doubt if any of you remember a time when telephones did not exist, but there will be many of you who remember when there was one phone in the house and you had a party line with your neighbors and you could listen in on their calls and ask them to get off the phone if you needed to make a call and they were on too long. The shift in thinking to cell phones today has been a huge change.

I remember within the last ten years going on a vacation and being careful to take only about 3 or 4 rolls of film because of the cost. When we went to Israel, we took over 2000 pictures. That is a significant change in thinking.

Changing the way we think is not always easy and different people have varying degrees of success at making changes.

            No change has ever been as radical as the change in thinking which came when Jesus appeared on earth. When Jesus first came, some, especially the Jewish leaders, had a great deal of difficulty accepting that a shift was taking place. Sometimes I wonder if we have successfully made that shift.

            Mark 2:1-3:6 helps us think about these things.

I.                   What is Mark’s Point?

In writing the gospels, the writers did not write everything that happened to Jesus. Although what they wrote is a historical account, it is not a detailed account written just to give the details. As they wrote, they chose to record those things that communicated some teaching. Each gospel writer was writing with a specific audience in mind and with a specific message to communicate. What is Mark’s point in Mark 2:1-3:6? Why is this a text unit?

A.                 Escalating Conflict

There are already hints in Mark 1 that there is a conflict brewing between Jesus and the religious leaders. When we read in 1:22 that Jesus taught, “…not as the teachers of the law...” we can guess that trouble is on the horizon. One of the things that happens in Mark 2:1-3:6 is that that reality is specifically addressed and quickly escalates to the point at which Jesus life is in danger.

            Please take note of this escalating conflict. In Mark 2:5, we read that the teachers of the law were “thinking to themselves, ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming!’” This is the first hint of conflict, but it is not outward, it is simply in their hearts. The next level of conflict is revealed in 2:16 where we read that the teachers of the law, “…asked his disciples…” They were not bold enough to address Jesus, but they were getting agitated enough to talk to the disciples. In 2:24, they become bolder and actually confront Jesus about the supposed transgressions of his disciples. Then in 3:2 we have a sense that their anger and suspicion is growing as we read that “they were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely.” Finally, in 3:6, the conflict escalates to the point where they even collaborate with their own enemies in order to plot, “how they might kill Jesus.”

            Besides the passion story itself, there are two sections in Mark which speak about the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders. This is one of them and it seems quite deliberate that Mark wrote these stories in the way he did to reveal this growing conflict. It is a rapid deterioration and although Jesus does not provoke them to anger, he does not hide from doing what He does and being faithful to his call. Why does the person and work of Jesus provoke them?

B.                 New Wineskins

The answer is that what Jesus was teaching and living was radically different from what the Jewish leaders were teaching and living and His way threatened their way.

1.                 Chiasm

There is a particular way of writing Scripture, which, if we understand it, helps us come to a clearer understanding of what Scripture is saying. It is called a chiasm. The way it works is that an idea is given, a second idea is given, then a third idea is given. Then the second idea is repeated and then the first idea is repeated. What this literary device does is function like a funnel. A funnel brings everything to the center and the chiastic arrangement draws our attention to the center in order to understand that the main idea which is being presented is at the center of the text. The middle is the heart and interpretive center of the passage. This style of writing was very common in the literature of the Jewish people and we find it quite often in the Psalms and also in other writings. In our culture, we are not really familiar with this way of writing and so we need to have it pointed out to us, but the Jewish people who read this would have immediately seen that this was happening and would immediately have perceived that main point of the passage was at the center of the passage. In this section, we have such a style of writing. Different commentators have seen different themes which draw our attention to the center of the passage.

            Harrington outlines the passage in this way:

A – 2:1-9 – cure by Jesus, silence of adversaries, questioning in their hearts

   B – 2:10-12 – declaration on the Son of Man

      C – 2:13-17 – action of Jesus, opponents’ reaction to disciples

            D – 2:18-22 – sayings of Jesus on bridegroom and newness

      C – 2:23-26 – action of disciples, opponents’ reaction to Jesus

   B – 2:27-28 – declaration on the Son of Man

A – 3:1-6 – cure by Jesus, adversaries’ silence, hardness of heart.

            Another writer points out the following common themes:

A – healing – 2:1-12

   B – eating – 2:13-17

      C – center of the passage which is the main point.

   B – eating – 2:23-27

A – healing – 3:1-6

2.                 A New Way

            So one of the main ideas of this passage is what is stated in Mark 2:21-22. We have already seen that this passage presents an escalating conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. A moment ago I asked, “Why was there a conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders?” The answer is found in these two verses. The religious leaders were steeped in the “traditions of the elders.” Although what they taught and lived was based on the Old Testament, it had had so many layers of ideas added to it that at this point it was already beyond what God had intended in the first place. The Jewish leaders were the teachers and keepers of the traditions of the elders. As Jesus began to teach and demonstrate the power of God they began to realize that what He was teaching was contrary to what they were teaching.

            In this statement, Jesus was saying that their teaching and his teaching were incompatible. He speaks of clothing and points out that if you have an older piece of clothing and you want to patch it you don’t use new material to patch it. The new piece will shrink and tear the older part of the garment and you will have a bigger problem. An old piece of clothing with a patch made of new material is incompatible. In a similar way, if you put new grape juice which has not yet fermented, in an old container, it will ferment and stretch the old container beyond its breaking point and you will lose both the container and the wine. In other words, an old container and new wine are incompatible.

            What Jesus was saying in this section is that He was bringing a new way of thinking.

Although His teaching was compatible with the teaching of God in the Old Testament, it was not compatible with what the religious leaders were teaching. That is the explanation for why the spiritual leaders had a growing conflict with Jesus. They were not ready for the change which Jesus was bringing. Their worldview and that of Jesus just did not fit together.

II.               The Way of God’s Kingdom

So Jesus was bringing a new way of thinking. Throughout the passage that new way of thinking is being described through the teaching and ministry of Jesus. It is very important for us to understand the way of the kingdom of Jesus because we live in this new kingdom. What are the principles of the kingdom which Jesus is introducing? Jesus is preaching good news, gospel. What is that gospel? As we examine these stories, we will learn three important aspects of the gospel message and as we are reminded of them, we need to ask ourselves, “Have I made the change to the new kingdom?” Sometimes I wonder if the conflict the religious leaders had with Jesus is not also the conflict we have with the way of the kingdom. Is it possible that we share the worldview of the Jewish religious leaders? Have we made the shift in thinking to fully embrace the kingdom of Jesus?

A.                 Forgiveness of Sins 2:1-12

The story at the beginning of Mark 2 is one that Sunday School teachers love to teach because it is so visual. As we read the story, we imagine the great crowd at the house in Capernaum. We can see the friends of the paralytic walk around the house and try desperately to find a way to get in, unsuccessfully. Although we have no adequate reference point to know how it would be possible for someone to “unroof the roof” it makes for a great story and feeds our imagination to think about how they could have done it. We love to read about the compassion of the four friends and their diligent efforts and feel affirmed about Jesus that he acts on behalf of the paralytic because of the faith of the four friends. These are all great parts of the story, but what the story is really about is revealed in the statement of Jesus “your sins are forgiven.” This is the event which triggers the questioning of the Jewish leaders. This is where the conflict is first mentioned. This is the new message of the kingdom which Jesus was bringing.

When Jesus challenged their thinking by asking them, “Which is easier to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk?’” we know that we need to think about this and to begin to discover in that statement what the kingdom of God is really all about and what is at the heart of what Jesus was teaching.

It is not hard to say, “I forgive you.” If someone wrongs you and asks forgiveness, it is right to say, “I forgive you.” It was even possible for the priests at that time to say, “I forgive you” on the basis of the sacrifices which God had required they make in order to receive the promise of God’s forgiveness. What was hard for someone who was not a priest to say was that He could guarantee the forgiveness of another person who had not wronged him. It implied an authority that belonged only to God. Geddert says, “The issue is whether Jesus can know that the person is being forgiven by God and can pronounce the man forgiven apart from any of the prescribed ceremonies and sacrifices – apart even from an explicit confession on the part of the sinner.”

It was also not hard to say, “…be healed.” Many people have said, “be healed” and a few of them have actually been successful, but what was hard was to back that up with a guaranteed healing. Who but God has the authority to guarantee healing?

So the new thing was that Jesus was claiming the authority to guarantee forgiveness of sins and He demonstrated that He had that authority by healing the paralytic.

What a marvelous new message of the kingdom of God as brought by Jesus. This is still a key principle of the kingdom of Jesus. It means that we do not have to walk around with guilt in our hearts because there is a guaranteed way of forgiveness. It means that we don’t have to wait until we can go to the temple before we know that we have been forgiven. It means that every day, every hour, as soon as we have sinned, we can confess and begin again with a clean slate. As we remember that this guarantee of forgiveness is backed up by the death of Jesus on the cross, we know that we don’t have to confess hard enough or make restitution before we receive forgiveness. Rather, we can make restitution, if that is warranted, on the basis of the knowledge that we have been forgiven.

When we beat ourselves up because of our sins, when we fail to go quickly to God in confession, when we live with guilt as a way of punishing ourselves, we have not caught the intent of the new thing which the kingdom of Jesus brings. It guarantees forgiveness on earth through Jesus. Have we made the change?

B.                 A Welcome for Sinners 2:13-17

Last week we noticed that Jesus called Andrew, Peter, James and John to be his disciples. Once again Jesus was at the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum is right on the shore on the north side of the lake. Here He came upon Levi, who was a tax collector, and invited him to join the group of disciples. Whether there were already others or not we don’t know. In Mark 3:13 we learn that there were 12 whom he identified as disciples. But this calling of Levi is mentioned because of his background and it becomes the occasion by which Jesus introduces another of the principles of the Kingdom of God and another of the new things which the religious leaders had a problem with.

It wasn’t long after Jesus called Peter that he was at his house eating. Was this a pattern? Here again, after calling Levi, we find that he was at Levi’s house eating. But the crowd here was quite a different crowd. It is likely that the crowd at Peter’s house was a crowd of religious people. Levi also invited his friends for dinner, but the text tells us that they were “tax collectors” and “sinners.” This is the point of contention for the religious leaders. Just after Jesus declared Divine authority to forgive sins, in the previous story, it is shocking, at least for the religious leaders, to hear that He was eating with sinners. Tax collectors were collaborators. They were Jews who had made friends with the Roman enemies. They had sold out to the occupying power. Worse than that, everyone knew that they were greedy and dishonest. When we read the story of Zacchaeus, we find a similar implication. How could anyone get together with them? The Pharisees, with their great concern about ritual purity would have considered such contacts as defiling. How could one who claimed to be God contaminate Himself in this way? The Scribes, with their political considerations would have considered such contact as inappropriate. Geddert says, “Jesus does not consider his present contacts defiling or inappropriate.”

And so Jesus answered their question by saying, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” That is gospel! That is good news! It is interesting that Jesus does not say that he had come to “call the sinners to repentance.” The focus is not on the need of the sinners to change, but rather on the offer of forgiveness. Once again we see incredible good news!

The change required by anyone who embraces the kingdom of Jesus is to remove the distinctions of clean and unclean. It is to open one’s heart to the outcast. It is to have a loving and welcoming attitude to all, even those who are morally or physically dirty. When we meet them with a “holier than thou” attitude, we are not doing things in the way of Jesus. When we meet them with compassion and an offer of forgiveness, we show His grace. One of the best stories I have ever heard about this radical value of the kingdom is the story told by Tony Campolo. He found himself in a diner, which also happened to be frequented by prostitutes. When he heard one of them lament that they were having a birthday the next day, but that no one cared, he determined to return the next day in order to celebrate her birthday. He got it. Have we got it? The Jewish religious leaders were unable to make this change. Are we?

Are we prepared to move out of our “holy clusters” in order to live in relationship with people who are sinners? Are we prepared to relate to the world with grace on our lips? Are we prepared to offer grace on the basis of Christ’s gift, not on the basis of a person’s merit? Paul said in I Timothy 1:15, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.”

C.                 Doing What Is Good 2:23-3:6

On the other side of the center of this passage, we have a few more stories which make another point about the new thing which Jesus’ kingdom brings, but which the Jewish religious leaders also did not get.

The main point of these two stories has to do with Sabbath keeping. On November 1, I preached a message on this passage in order to discuss the issue of Sabbath keeping. This morning, I would like to examine the passage from a slightly different angle – that of the kingdom principle revealed here.

Sabbath keeping was a highly regarded value by the Pharisees. They had described and explained every detail of Sabbath keeping to a high degree. Now they caught Jesus’ disciples violating one of their principles of Sabbath keeping. Jesus came into conflict with them by telling them that there was a higher principle in play than Sabbath keeping when he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man.” In the second story, Mark 3:1-6, that principle is further explained. When Jesus was being watched by them in the synagogue, he was aware that they were watching him critically. He confronted them with the question, “Is it right to do good or evil, to save life or kill.” Geddert says, “For them it is a catalog of laws; for Jesus, it is a pointer to God’s larger purposes. They see only rules; he sees how those rules affect people and when they must be subordinated to human need.” What Jesus was doing was setting aside rigorous obedience to law and encouraging His followers to seek God for what is good. The Pharisees lived by the law and had extensive lists of them. Jesus looked at a situation and asked the question, “What is good?” “What does God want?” and lived by that. The principle of the kingdom is that this radical change takes place. Instead of living by law, Jesus invites us, in the power of the Holy Spirit to live by what is good and what will save life. Sometimes it is hard to answer the question about what is good and what gives life, but Jesus has not left us to answer that question alone. He has given us His Spirit, the community of faith and His word to answer that question. But the contrast between asking what is law and asking what is good is significant. The Pharisees couldn’t make that change and so came into such conflict with Jesus that they were ready to kill Him. By plotting to kill him they showed their belief that the Sabbath is OK for doing evil. What Irony!!


The way of the Pharisees was incompatible with the way of Jesus. They were unable to make the shift. In this passage, we discover three principles regarding Jesus’ kingdom. It is a kingdom in which forgiveness is guaranteed on earth through Jesus. It is a kingdom in which grace is offered to all and sinners are welcomed. It is a kingdom in which the way of living in a relationship with God is not by law, but by seeking God’s will. Geddert summarizes, “Jesus offers forgiveness without ceremonies; he offers fellowship with people who have neither publicly acknowledged their sinfulness nor visibly cleaned up their lives; he calls people to follow him, and in so doing their lives are transformed.”

As I see what Mark is saying to us here, I wonder if I have made the shift. At times I fear that I am quite comfortable to follow the traditions of the elders. My prayer for myself and for all of us is that we will be able to make the shift to faithfully living in the kingdom of Jesus.

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