Cf. “Lectures on Gospels,” pp. 156-161.
Matt. 9:1-8; Luke 5:17-26.
After an interval spent in desert places with such as flocked to Him by the fame which kept Him from any city, we find our Lord once more in Capernaum; and at once crowds besiege, not the house only, but the very door, to hear the word He was speaking. Alas, Capernaum! wert thou not exalted to heaven? Art thou not brought down to hell? The mighty works done in thee were less mighty than the Word which thus attracted thee, as of one that had a pleasant voice and could play well on an instrument; and yet all fell on heedless hearts and unploughed consciences; and they knew not, though they did know, and will yet, that a prophet, and more than a prophet, was among them. But if the mass listened only with their ears, there was faith which persevered in face of difficulties, and failed not to make its suit to Jesus. What could seem more desperate? The leper at least could come to Him, could beseech, could kneel down to Him: how could the paralytic pierce the throng which severed him from the Saviour? If he could not come himself, he could be brought. And so it was. They come bringing the paralytic on his couch, which was borne of four. “And when they could not come near to Him on account of the crowd, they uncovered the roof28 where he was; and when they had dug it up, they let down the couch on which the paralytic lay.” O Lord, how sweet, how refreshing to Thy heart this confidence in Thee, this most eloquent, even if unuttered, appeal to Thy love and power! It was faith, not alone of the patient, but of his bearers; and faith, now as ever, gets not only what it asks, but far more and better. “When Jesus saw their faith, he says to the paralytic, Son, thy sins are forgiven [thee].”25
Yes! this was the root of the evil, deeper than either leprosy or paralysis — sin — which man accounts so small a matter, a mere moral scar on the surface! What was sin not to Him who on the cross was made sin? Who put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself? Filled with love, and in view of the faith which has there sought Him out, He acts in the sovereignty of grace and pronounces the wondrous words, “Son, thy sins are forgiven [thee].” He who knew all men, and did not commit Himself to them; He who knew God and His handiwork, commits Himself to faith. It may be weak faith, but it is of God, and His eye was quick to see it, and to bless it according to all the love of His heart. “Son, thy sins are forgiven [thee].”
But Satan, too, had his congregation there. “Certain of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, Why does this man thus speak? He blasphemes.26 Who can forgive sins but God only?” They were wise in their own conceits; they were judges of law and Gospel, and neither doers of the one nor believers of the other. They were worse. Rejectors of Christ and His mercy, their proud reason disdained the blessed truth of God; their proud self-righteousness spurned and hated that grace of which they never knew the need. The amplest evidence of holy power, the power of God, in opposition to Satan and in compassion to man, had been vouchsafed; but what of that to reasoning scribes, used to the world as it is, and jealous of their own religious importance? One here below pronouncing the forgiveness of sins to a miserable sinner who had not even sought it! This was in their eves startling, blasphemous, an encroachment on God’s prerogative. Not that they cared for God or loved man, but they hated Jesus for His grace; and if it were the truth, their occupation was gone. But no, it could not be; it was unheard of since the world began: “Why does this man thus speak? he blasphemes.29 Who can forgive sins but God only?” Ah! there was the secret; the glory of Jesus was unknown, His Divine dignity entirely left out of the account. The principle they urged was true, the application fatally false. How often this is the rock on which religious unbelievers split and perish!
And yet forthwith He gave them evidence of what and who He was; for He perceived in His spirit that they so reasoned in their hearts, taxed them with their hidden thoughts, and appealed to themselves whether it was easier by a word to convey forgiveness or a bodily cure. Which claim was readiest? Who but a Divine person, or the wielder of Divine power, could say either the one or the other? They were equally easy to God, alike impossible to man. “But that ye may know,” says He [in evident reference to Ps. 103:3], “that the Son of man30 hath power [
ἐξουσίαν, the right as well as the ability] on earth to forgive sins (He says to the sick of the palsy), Arise, and take up thy couch, and go to thine house. And immediately he arose, took up his couch, and went out before them all, so that all were amazed, and glorified God, saying, We never saw it thus.” The outward sign of power guaranteed the gift of grace and both betokened that He who spoke was the Son of man on earth.
It will be observed that, though the Lord does here appropriate to Himself the double character of mercy, which Israel are yet to attribute to Jehovah in Ps. 103, it is not as Christ or Messiah, properly speaking, but as “Son of man.” So He was ever wont to speak. It is the title of His manhood, both in suffering rejection and in glory; as such He blesses faith here, as such He will judge unbelief by-and-by (John 5). Thus He vindicated on earth, by the powers of the world to come, that mercy which forgave the sinful soul before them. What a withering rebuke to cavilling scribes! What a triumphant testimony to the gospel of grace in the name of Jesus! And God does not now leave Himself without a witness, where His Spirit carries to the heart the power of that name, and a witness that fails not to tell on the consciences where there are eyes to see the holy strength and liberty of one previously degraded in sin, and shame, and folly. Sin withers the man, as well as covers him with guilt. He who pardons communicates life and power, to the glory of God; and this as Son of man, the name of mercy to the ruined that bow to Him.
Matt, 9:9-13; Luke 5:27-32.
The next scene, after the record of His teaching by the seaside, still more opens and manifests the outflowing of grace: the call of Levi, the publican (or Matthew, as he calls himself). What a step and change! From the tax-office to follow Jesus, soon to be an Apostle when the Twelve were ordained (chapter 3)! No trade, no name, was more scandalous in Israel. This was the very occasion for grace, as our Lord proves by His choice. Nor was this all, for as Jesus reclined at table in his house, “many tax-gatherers and sinners lay at table with Jesus and His disciples; for they were many, and they followed Him.” In Pharisaic eyes31 He could not have gone lower in familiar love, unless He had turned outright to the Gentiles; for shepherds were not more an abomination to the Egyptians than tax-gatherers were to the scribes and Pharisees. Hence, when they saw Him eat with these reprobates, they say, not to Jesus, but to His disciples (for only pride and mischief were in their hearts), “How is it that He eateth and drinketh with tax-gatherers and sinners?” But this effort to undermine Him with His followers, and so to shake them, only draws out from the Lord His own strong, increasingly strong, expression of grace, as well as His exposure of His and their enemies’ self-destructive pride: “When Jesus heard it, he says to them, They that are strong have no need of the physician, but they that are ill. I have not come to call [the] righteous, but sinners.” On their own showing, what claim had they on all He had to bestow?
Matt. 1:14-17; Luke 5:33-39.
Next, a similar spirit of dishonesty and ill-will, which entangles the disciples of John also, goes to Jesus about His disciples; for they and the Pharisees, who used to fast,32 came to Him asking why His disciples did not. But the Master stands up in their behalf, and shows that a wisdom above their own led them in their weakness. Where was the sense, the propriety, the reverence in lasting if the Bridegroom was there? John Baptist had announced better things; but Pharisaism despised Jesus, and had no heart for the joys of His presence. Let them all learn, however, that days were coming when He should be taken away, and then should they fast in that day.
In truth, the whole scene intimated to those who had ears to hear the grave economical change that was at hand, and that Messiah’s presence now was but transitional. His call of Levi and His eating and drinking with publicans were no dark signs that Israel as such were lost: the disciples’ enjoyment of His brief stay before His taking away plainly signified the abrupt and impending catastrophe — seemingly His, but really theirs; and the verses that follow bear witness to the new character of God’s ways therein, and to their incompatibility with Judaism. Neither its displayed form nor its inner power can blend with the old thing: the kingdom of God, being not in word but in power, must have a new and suited vehicle wherein to work. Legal forms only prove their weakness if there be the energy of the Holy Ghost. The worn-out Jewish garment and old skins disappear: new wine demands new skins.33 Christianity, in its principle and its practice, is a fresh and full development of Divine blessing. It was not a question of mending the old, but accepting the new.
Matt. 12:1-8; Luke 6:1-5.
The incident of the first Sabbath Day is here recorded, which, in point of fact, took place at this very time; for we must constantly bear in mind that Mark pursues the thread of history. Our Lord is intimating the break that was about to take place with Judaism, and the introduction of the new character and power of the kingdom of God. Now, this is a very serious truth always, but it was peculiarly solemn to Israel. What more perplexes a godly person than the very thought of God changing His mind? What difficulty greater than the notion that God could, as it were, unsay or undo what He had previously laid down? And I think there ought to be great delicacy in dealing with souls where we find there is a godly jealousy as to this, even though it may be ignorant and not without prejudice. But, still, it was the evident fact that what God set up for a specific purpose in Israel never fully reflected His own mind. Eternal truth, breaking through the clouds of Judaism, shone out in the person of Christ, and is now verified in experience as well as faith by the Spirit’s working in the children of God.
In a word, it was never the purpose of God to reveal Himself and bring out all His mind in connection with the Jews, but with the Church. Christianity, and not Judaism, is the expression of God’s mind. Christ Himself, properly speaking, is the image of the invisible God, and Christianity is the practical present result. It is the application of the life, mind, and affections of Christ to the heart and walk of those who are brought to God; and this, founded on His work and correspondent to His place in heaven by the Spirit sent down. All through the Jewish system, as well as before it, there were souls waiting for Christ, and the only persons that ever honoured God in the Jewish system were those who, by faith, were above that system. Those alone walked blameless in the various ordinances of the law who looked for the Messiah. It was this expectation, given by the Spirit of God, which lifted them above the earthly thoughts, the grovelling desires, the selfishness of nature. It raised them above themselves, if one may so say, as well as above their fellows, for there is always Divine power in Christ; and although it was far more fully displayed after Christ came, yet, as one may see before the sun rises there is such a thing as the dawn, and streaks that betoken the coming day, so those who looked by the faith of Christ beyond the mere passing shadows which met and satisfied the religiousness of nature — those only honoured God even in the outward ordinances of Israel. It is the same principle now as ever, but in a fuller way, because nothing is more certain than that the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in the saint of God, in the Christian. But how is it fulfilled? Never merely by endeavouring to keep the law. It never was fulfilled in that way, nor can be. In point of fact, as we know, the men that were thus jealous for the law were themselves the greatest and bitterest of the enemies of the Lord Jesus. You know it was fleshly pride as to the law which blinded them into the delusion that even our blessed Lord Himself did not sufficiently honour it. We easily gather that Paul was taxed with the same reproach; and Stephen, too, was stoned to death because of this fertile and fatal mistake. So that we may lay it down as a fixed point that the men who put the ordinances, or the outward regulations of God, in the place of God and Christ Himself are men that never keep it; even as Stephen told the Jews that they received the law by the disposition of angels, and had not kept it. These were the men whose voices were loudest about it to those who really honoured God in that law as well as in the faith of the Messiah.
Take every believer — I do not say on every occasion, for there is, sad to say, a danger of our own nature working, and that nature neither believes in Jesus nor keeps the law, but is a law-breaking, Christ-denying thing: the flesh is enmity against God Himself, and nature working its own way always dishonours God — but take the believer, not when he is yielding to his own corrupt nature; take him where, in truth alone, so to speak, we can rightly think of a believer as such, in the exercise of his faith, in the manifestation of the new life which the grace of God has given him, and what is the character of this life? It cleaves to God, it delights in His word, it loves His will, it is attracted by whatever manifests Him. All proves that the believer loves God in heart and soul, loves Him better than himself — for he hates himself, and is ready to own, lust so far as faith is in operation, his own folly, his frequent and shameful failure, while he seeks to justify and cleave to God, and delights to make Him known. How comes this? It is that Divine principle of life, the energy of the Spirit of God, acting in the new man which enjoys each thing that flows from and displays God, and is the exercise of the new nature which we derive from God. Again, the believer, just in proportion as he has Christ before his soul, walks in the Spirit according to the will of God. If he has not Christ before him, it is as if he had no new nature. Life is there, but it is only Christ that maintains, and manifests, and brings it out, giving its full exercise and scope. The believer’s heart goes out towards misery — yea, towards poor guilty sinners. Flesh despises and hates, or is indifferent; but the new nature, under the Spirit’s power, goes out in compassion and desire for another’s blessing. There, I say, is love again; and thus you have the two great moral principles, love to God and love to man. The believer, and the believer alone, walks in them. If he has Christ in his eye, he has them in his heart, and the Holy Ghost strengthens him to walk accordingly. It is thus that the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in those that walk after the Spirit. The Spirit of God is careful to show it is fulfilled in them that walk after the Spirit, not in such as only stand for the law.
Take the Jew, to whom the law was given. Does he manifest real love? I do not say that some are not upright men, possessed of natural benevolence. The question now is of the manifestation of active love to God and man. If men have merely the law before them, what then? The Jew himself is the most striking example and proof that flesh is good for nothing; he is bent upon his own things in this world, coveting a place everywhere, loving money, and so on, of which we are all of us apt to be guilty by nature. Undoubtedly this is the case with the mere unconverted Israelite or the nominal Christian, in whom the Holy Ghost does not act. Unless Christ, either as an object of hope before He came or now since He has come as the object of faith, be before the heart, there is no reality, nor can be, because the flesh is a false and hating thing. Unless a man have a new nature distinct from and above his own, there never is true — that is, Divine — love. The one means of accomplishing the law is to have Christ before and above us, yet in that our portion by faith. Hence it was that Enoch and Noah, and the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who never heard of the law, yet obeyed and pleased God. Were they not holy and godly men? Certainly they were. What made them so? The faith of the woman’s seed, the promised Son, the Messiah. Then, when the law was given, what was it that made Moses and Aaron saints of the Lord? The law? Never. It was Christ. It was having Him before their soul. Not that God’s law was not honoured, but what enabled them to delight in the expression of God’s mind — be it what it might — was their looking for and believing in God’s blessed promise of the coming Deliverer, the Kinsman-Redeemer. And now He is come, that which has delivered us from wrath and judgment delivers us also, in proportion as it is the object of our souls, practically from self and the world, from corruption and violence of every kind. Let Christ be forgotten by a believer, what is the effect? He shows the pride, vanity, foolishness, malice, of the old man. It is not, of course, what is proper to him as a believer, but what belonged to him as a man before he believed. Self is allowed to come out and show its own hateful colours when Christ is not the one standard and object who fills the mind’s eye and heart.
Now, our Lord, at this very time, brings out, in His pointed acts connected with the Sabbath Day, an illustration of what has been before us, and I take this opportunity of dwelling on it a little in a practical way and also doctrinally, seeking the instruction for our own souls that the Lord gives us in these incidents. It is. true that the first and primary object was to fill up what He had already shown. To put a new piece upon an old garment would only make the rent worse; so to pour new wine into old bottles would only risk the loss both of the wine and the bottles. The attempt to mix the new forms and spirit of the kingdom of God with the old ways of Judaism, would only end, not in mending Judaism, nor in preserving Christianity, but in the ruin of both. And this precisely has been the issue in the history of Christendom. The palpable failure of the outward Christian profession is the practical evidence of this truth. What Satan aimed at was to mingle together the old Jewish ordinances with Christian truth, and the result is such painful confusion that the light of truth and the grace of God are utterly darkened — such a complete jumbling together that simple souls are perplexed, to their exceeding loss and damage. They cannot in such a state see the difference between grace and law, and what it is to be brought under the name of Christ. All these things are dim before them, and hence ensues uncertainty of soul and powerlessness practically in glorifying God.
Our Lord follows this up by the instruction of the Sabbath Day. “It came to pass that He went through the corn-fields on the Sabbath, and His disciples, as they went, began to pluck the ears of corn. And the Pharisees said to Him, Behold, why do they on the Sabbath that which is not lawful?” Now, it is clear that there was no law of God against the case. The censure was a law of their own, and a notion of men which looks upon an outward fact and makes a system of it — man’s constant danger. It is quite true that God had ordained upon the Sabbath Day rest for man and beast, but there was no ground whatever from the law ‘ of God to forbid a hungry man, as he passed through a field, from plucking the ears of corn to satisfy his want — nay, it was thoroughly according to the beneficence of God to provide from His’ people’s plenty for such urgent need. There was remarkable care in Israel for the stranger, the bereaved, and the suffering. The poor in the land were not to be forgotten in the joy of harvest, and an express ordinance of God forbade their making clean riddance of the corners of the field. But how came it to pass that there should be famished Israelites thus passing through a cornfield? And if such want existed, was it God or His enemy who turned the Sabbath Day into an iron vice for afflicting the sad at the will of heartless religionists? Thus it was that the Pharisees, in their pretended desire to honour God on the one side, showed, on the other, their complete ignorance of His heart and character, which breathed the fullness of mercy towards want and wretchedness; all was set aside by the miserable codicil that man added to the will of God. But there was One on earth who at once detected the forger’s hand that presumed to meddle with the first testament. The Lord stands up for the guiltless. “Have ye never read what David did when he had need and hungered, he and they that were with him? how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar. — [the]27 high-priest,34 and ate the shewbread, which it is not lawful save for the priests to eat, and gave also to them that were with him?”
Our Lord here points to the rejection of the object of God’s counsels — of David, for instance, in his day, who was the anointed king, even while he was the despised one and hunted for his life upon the mountains of Israel. He and his company typified Jesus, and Jesus was found now in circumstances morally similar to those of David, anointed, but not yet come to the crown. Thus it is that the Lord vindicates the disciples and maintains the principle that when God’s witness is refused it is madness for the rejectors to pretend to be glorifying God. Were they then despising a greater than David? For such to talk about the Sabbath Day, in order to lay heavier burdens on the righteous, what was it in God’s eyes? The Lord of glory was upon earth, and how came it that His disciples wanted even ears of corn to stay their hunger? What a tale this told! How was it that the disciples of Jesus were thus miserable? How out of course must be the foundations for the Lord and His disciples to lack the most ordinary necessaries of life! Who were these praters of malicious words about the Sabbath Day that could forbid even this scanty pittance, while God’s mercy would refuse to none, and least of all on that day? But that the Pharisees, rejecting the Lord Jesus, their own Messiah — that they should have the face to abuse the Sabbath against His disciples! David, when he was in destitution because of the wickedness of Saul, who held the throne in an evil way — David and his followers could eat the shewbread, which was only, had things been in order, for the priests. If thus the hallowed bread became common, what was the past to the present? In the presence of the evil that despises God’s beloved and faithful witnesses in the earth, the outward ordinances of the Lord lose their application for the time being. The sanctity of ritual disappears before the rejection of the Lord and His people.
“And He says to them, The Sabbath was made on account of man, and not man on account of the Sabbath.” The Sabbath was not intended to be a means of increasing the sufferings of poor man. If God sanctified it after the creation, and enacted it at the giving of the law, was it that God wanted to make His people miserable? On the contrary, not only in its higher character and beside the thought of His rest, of which it is a type, the Sabbath was made for man. Pharisees might turn the Sabbath into an engine for torturing man, but, in God’s mind, the Sabbath came in most mercifully. There were the days of labour which God Himself had known something of in figure, for there was a time when He had wrought and made the earth; and God Himself was pleased to rest on the Sabbath, and to sanctify it. Then sin came in, and God could no longer own it, and His word is silent. We read of the Sabbath no more until God takes up His people in delivering mercy, and gives them manna from heaven. Then the Sabbath Day becomes again a marked thing, and rest follows, the type of Jesus sent down from above. It disappears from the beginning of the first book of Scripture and reappears in the second. God makes rest once more. He was giving to man in grace when He brought Israel out of Egypt. Of this the Sabbath was the appropriate sign. But Israel, understanding not the grace of God, accepted the conditions of His law. They took their stand upon their own righteousness when God gave them the Ten Commandments, and the consequence was that man under law failed miserably, dishonouring God, setting up calves of gold, bringing discredit, shame, and scandal upon the name of God throughout the whole world. This is no more than we have each done. The Israelites made this fatal mistake when they surrounded Mount Sinai. Instead of reminding God of His promise to Israel, instead of confessing that they could not be trusted, and that it is only the mercy of God that enables anyone to do His will, they, on the contrary, undertook boldly to earn the promised blessings by their own obedience. But they broke down increasingly, till it came to the crisis of David’s rejection in Israel. God showed where His heart was, as He loves to do at such a time. Granted that the shewbread was only for the priests, yet for them to keep their consecrated bread and let the anointed king starve would be strange homage to God and the king. And now the Son of David, the Lord of David, was there, and more rejected, more despised, than David himself.
The Lord, after He has thus drawn out of Scripture the true lesson for the day, brings out the general beneficent object of God in the Sabbath for all days. “The Sabbath was made on account of man.” The Pharisees thought and spoke as if man was made for the Sabbath, to be put under it thus; but the Sabbath was made for man’s good and rest, raising his thoughts above the mere labour of his hands. But He brings in another principle: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath also.” He connects that with the Sabbath being made for man, but breaks out into a greater truth: the person of Christ is above all ordinances. His glory, even as the rejected man, eclipses all the twinkling rites instituted by the Lord Himself. I have no hesitation in saying that the Lord who gave the law at Sinai, and He who afterwards was born and lived a man upon the earth, was the same blessed Divine person. He who always acted throughout the Old Testament in government, who came down and suffered and died upon the cross in grace, He now maintains, not merely that He is Lord of the Sabbath in virtue of being Divine, but of being Son of man; and what is the importance of this? “Son of man” is the title of His rejection. “Son of man” is the name that He assumed when the Jews refused Him as the Messiah. You will find a remarkable proof of this in Matt. 16:13 and Luke 9:18 (the same fact recorded in the two different Evangelists). He forbids His disciples to say that He was “the Christ.” He leaves aside for a while the glory of His Messiahship: as such He had come and presented Himself to the Jews, but they would not have Him. Now He says, as it were, It is too late: I have given them ample proof — miracle, prophecy, My own ways and words. Everything shows that I am the Messiah, but they will not have Me. It is not that proof is wanting, but their hearts are steeled against all evidences. They are the enemies of God, and proved to be such by refusing what God has fully vouchsafed. Now He takes another character altogether — “Son of man.” And what may well and deeply affect us is this — it is as Son of man that He suffers on the cross. “The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, and chief priests, and scribes, and be slain, and be raised the third day.” “The Christ” was a title in particular connection with Israel after the flesh. He was their Messiah. He belonged to no other nation. He was the promised King of the Jews. But the Jews would not have Him. Well, says the Lord, you cannot deny that I am Son of man. It is a lowly name, but, after all, the Son of man opens the way to His magnificent rights and glory over all mankind. The Son of man comes in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. The Son of man takes the kingdom over all tribes, and nations, and tongues. What leads to it all? His rejection as Messiah. He suffers as Son of man first, because it is determined, according to God’s counsels and grace, to have companions with Him in the very same glory. It is through that very same fact that Christ has suffered as the Son of man, and has surely taken His glory because of it, that we shall be with Him — that all Christians will be without a spot or stain, or any such thing, all through the suffering Son of man. But if I have Him humbled, I have the glorious Son of man.
In the present case, however, the Lord does not go further than “The Son of man is Lord also of the Sabbath.” He accepts His rejection, but He pleads for His disciples before those who boasted and disputed about the Sabbath, while they were dishonouring the Lord of the Sabbath. Could they deny what David had done, and God had scaled, sanctioned, and recorded for Israel’s instruction? That is the first defence. The next is that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for it. The third plea, which is rather a consequence, is that He who was a blessed Man - the Son of man — is Lord of the Sabbath. It is the glory of His person as the rejected, suffering Man: as such, and not only as God, He is above the Sabbath Day - its Lord.35
25 “Thee”: so Acorr, with later uncials and most cursives. Edd. omit, with BD, etc.
26 “Thus speak? he blasphemes”: so Edd. with BDL, Amiatine of Vulg., Memph.; whilst ACG, etc., Syrpesch hcl Arm. Goth. AEth. have “Why does he thus speak blasphemies?”
27 “[The]”: Edd. omit with BL
Γ, etc. It is inserted in C
Δ, etc., and in cursives 1, 33, 69. is neutral.