THE BEGINNING OF THE STORY (Mark 1:1-4)
1:1-4 This is the beginning of the story of how Jesus Christ, the Son of God, brought the good news to men. There is a passage in Isaiah the prophet like this--"Lo! I send my messenger before you and he will prepare your road for you. He will be like a voice crying in the wilderness, 'Get ready the road of the Lord. Make straight the path by which he will come'." This came true when John the Baptizer emerged in the wilderness, announcing a baptism which was the sign of a repentance through which a man might find forgiveness for his sins.
Mark starts the story of Jesus a long way back. It did not begin with Jesus' birth; it did not even begin with John the Baptizer in the wilderness; it began with the dreams of the prophets long ago; that is to say, it began long, long ago in the mind of God.
The Stoics were strong believers in the ordered plan of God. "The things of God," said Marcus Aurelius, "are fun of foresight. All things flow from heaven." There are things we may well learn here.
(i) It has been said that "the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts," and so are the thoughts of God. God is characteristically a God who is working his purposes out. History is not a random kaleidoscope of disconnected events; it is a process directed by the God who sees the end in the beginning.
(ii) We are within that process, and because of that we can either help or hinder it. In one sense it is as great an honour to help in some great process as it is a privilege to see the ultimate goal. Life would be very different if, instead of yearning for some distant and at present unattainable goal, we did all that we could to bring that goal nearer.
"In youth, because I could not be a singer,
I did not even try to write a song;
I set no little trees along the roadside,
Because I knew their growth would take so long.
But now from wisdom that the years have brought me,
I know that it may be a blessed thing
To plant a tree for someone else to water,
Or make a song for someone else to sing."
The goal will never be reached unless there are those who labour to make it possible.
The prophetic quotation which Mark uses is suggestive.
I send my messenger before you and he will prepare your road for you. This is from Malachi 3:1. In its original context it is a threat. In Malachi's day the priests were failing in their duty. The offerings were blemished and shoddy second-bests; the service of the temple was a weariness to them. The messenger was to cleanse and purify the worship of the temple before the Anointed One of God emerged upon the earth. So then the coming of Christ was a purification of life. And the world needed that purification. Seneca called Rome "a cesspool of iniquity." Juvenal spoke of her "as the filthy sewer into which flowed the abominable dregs of every Syrian and Achaean stream." Wherever Christianity comes it brings purification.
That happens to be capable of factual demonstration. Bruce Barton tells how the first important journalistic assignment that fell to him was to write a series of articles designed to expose Billy Sunday, the evangelist. Three towns were chosen. "I talked to the merchants," Bruce Barton writes, "and they told me that during the meetings and afterward people walked up to the counter and paid bills which were so old that they had long since been written off the books." He went to visit the president of the chamber of commerce of a town that Billy Sunday had visited three years before. "I am not a member of any church," he said. "I never attend but I'll tell you one thing. If it was proposed now to bring Billy Sunday to this town, and if we knew as much about the results of his work in advance as we do now, and if the churches would not raise the necessary funds to bring him, I could raise the money in half a day from men who never go to church. He took eleven thousand dollars out of here, but a circus comes here and takes out that amount in one day and leaves nothing. He left a different moral atmosphere." The exposure that Bruce Barton meant to write became a tribute to the cleansing power of the Christian message.
When Billy Graham preached in Shreveport, Louisiana, liquor sales dropped by 40 per cent and the sale of Bibles increased 300 per cent. During a mission in Seattle, amongst the results there is stated quite simply, "Several impending divorce actions were cancelled." In Greensboro, North Carolina, the report was that "the entire social structure of the city was affected."
One of the great stories of what Christianity can do came out of the mutiny on the Bounty. The mutineers were put ashore on Pitcairn Island. There were nine mutineers, six native men, ten native women and a girl, fifteen years old. One of them succeeded in making crude alcohol. A terrible situation ensued. They all died except Alexander Smith. Smith chanced upon a Bible. He read it and he made up his mind to build up a state with the natives of that island based directly on the Bible. It was twenty years before an American sloop called at the island. They found a completely Christian community. There was no gaol because there was no crime. There was no hospital because there was no disease. There was no asylum because there was no insanity. There was no illiteracy; and nowhere in the world was human life and property so safe. Christianity had cleansed that society.
Where Christ is allowed to come the antiseptic of the Christian faith cleanses the moral poison of society and leaves it pure and clean.
John came announcing a baptism of repentance. The Jew was familiar with ritual washings. Leviticus 11:1-47; Leviticus 12:1-8; Leviticus 13:1-59; Leviticus 14:1-57; Leviticus 15:1-33 details them. "The Jew," said Tertullian, "washes himself every day because every day he is defiled." Symbolic washing and purifying was woven into the very fabric of Jewish ritual. A Gentile was necessarily unclean for he had never kept any part of the Jewish law. Therefore, when a Gentile became a proselyte, that is a convert to the Jewish faith, he had to undergo three things. First, he had to undergo circumcision, for that was the mark of the covenant people; second, sacrifice had to be made for him, for he stood in need of atonement and only blood could atone for sin; third, he had to undergo baptism, which symbolized his cleansing from all the pollution of his past life. Naturally, therefore, the baptism was not a mere sprinkling with water, but a bath in which his whole body was bathed.
The Jew knew baptism; but the amazing thing about John's baptism was that he, a Jew, was asking Jews to submit to that which only a Gentile was supposed to need. John had made the tremendous discovery that to be a Jew in the racial sense was not to be a member of God's chosen people; a Jew might be in exactly the same position as a Gentile; not the Jewish life, but the cleansed life belonged to God.
The baptism was accompanied by confession. In any return to God confession must be made to three different people.
(i) A man must make confession to himself. It is a part of human nature that we shut our eyes to what we do not wish to see, and above all to our own sins. Someone tells of a man's first step to grace. As he was shaving one morning he looked at his face in the mirror and suddenly said, "You dirty, little rat!" And from that day he began to be a changed man.
No doubt when the prodigal son left home he thought himself a fine and adventurous character. Before he took his first step back home he had to take a good look at himself and say, "I will get up and go home and say that I am an utter rotter." (Luke 15:17-18.)
There is no one in all the world harder to face than ourselves; and the first step to repentance and to a right relationship to God is to admit our sin to ourselves.
(ii) A man must make confession to those whom he has wronged. It will not be much use saying to God that we are sorry until we say we are sorry to those whom we have hurt and grieved. The human barriers have to be removed before the divine barriers can go. In the East African Church, a husband and wife were members of a group. One of them came and made confession that there was a quarrel at home. The minister at once said, "You should not have come and confessed that quarrel just now; you should have made it up and then come and confessed it."
It can often be the case that confession to God is easier than confession to men. But there can be no forgiveness without humiliation.
(iii) A man must make confession to God. The end of pride is the beginning of forgiveness. It is when a man says, "I have sinned," that God gets the chance to say, "I forgive." It is not the man who desires to meet God on equal terms who will discover forgiveness, but the man who kneels in humble contrition and whispers through his shame, "God be merciful to me a sinner."
THE HERALD OF THE KING (Mark 1:5-8)
1:5-8 And the whole country of Judea went out to him, and so did all the people of Jerusalem, and they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, while they confessed their sins. John was clad in a garment of camel's hair, and he had a leather girdle round his waist, and it was his custom to eat locusts and wild honey. The burden of his proclamation was, "The one who is stronger than I is coming after me. I am not fit to stoop down and to loosen the strap of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
It is clear that the ministry of John was mightily effective, for they flocked out to listen to him and to submit to his baptism. Why was it that John made an impact such as this upon his nation?
(i) He was a man who lived his message. Not only his words, but also his whole life was a protest. Three things about him marked the reality of his protest against contemporary life.
(a) There was the place in which he stayed--the wilderness. Between the centre of Judaea and the Dead Sea lies one of the most terrible deserts in the world. It is a limestone desert; it looks warped and twisted; it shimmers in the haze of the heat; the rock is hot and blistering and sounds hollow to the feet as if there was some vast furnace underneath; it moves out to the Dead Sea and then descends in dreadful and unscalable precipices down to the shore. In the Old Testament it is sometimes called Yeshiymown (Hebrew #3452), which means The Devastation. John was no city-dweller. He was a man from the desert and from its solitudes and its desolations. He was a man who had given himself a chance to hear the voice of God.
(b) There were the clothes he wore a garment woven of camel's hair and a leather belt about his waist. So did Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). To look at the man was to be reminded, not of the fashionable orators of the day, but of the ancient prophets who lived close to the great simplicities and avoided the soft and effeminate luxuries which kill the soul.
(c) There was the food he ate--locusts and wild honey. It so happens that both words are capable of two interpretations. The locusts may be the animals for the law allowed them to be eaten (Leviticus 11:22-23); but they may also be a kind of bean or nut, the carob, which was the food of the poorest of the poor. The honey may be the honey the wild bees make; or it may be a kind of sweet sap that distills from the bark of certain trees. it does not matter what the words precisely mean. In any event John's diet was of the simplest.
So John emerged. People had to listen to a man like that. It was said of Carlyle that "he preached the gospel of silence in twenty volumes." Many a man comes with a message which he himself denies. Many a man with a comfortable bank account preaches about not laying up treasures upon earth. Many a man extols the blessings of poverty from a comfortable home. But in the case of John, the man was the message, and because of that people listened.
(ii) His message was effective because he told people what in their heart of hearts they knew and brought them what in the depths of their souls they were waiting for.
(a) The Jews had a saying that "if Israel would only keep the law of God perfectly for one day the Kingdom of God would come." When John summoned men to repentance he was confronting them with a decision that they knew in their heart of hearts they ought to make. Long ago Plato said that education did not consist in telling people new things; it consisted in extracting from their memories what they already knew. No message is so effective as that which speaks to a man's own conscience, and that message becomes well-nigh irresistible when it is spoken by a man who obviously has the right to speak.
(b) The people of Israel were well aware that for three hundred years the voice of prophecy had been silent. They were waiting for some authentic word from God. And in John they heard it. In every walk of life the expert is recognizable. A famous violinist tells us that no sooner had Toscanini mounted the rostrum than the orchestra felt his authority flowing over them. We recognize at once a doctor who has real skill. We recognize at once a speaker who knows his subject. John had come from God and to hear him was to know it.
(iii) His message was effective because he was completely humble. His own verdict on himself was that he was not fit for the duty of a slave. Sandals were composed simply of leather soles fastened to the foot by straps passing through the toes. The roads were unsurfaced. In dry weather they were dust heaps; in wet weather rivers of mud. To remove the sandals was the work and office of a slave. John asked nothing for himself but everything for the Christ whom he proclaimed. The man's obvious self-forgottenness, his patent yieldedness, his complete self-effacement, his utter lostness in his message compelled people to listen.
(iv) His message was effective because he pointed to something and someone beyond himself. He told men that his baptism drenched them in water, but one was coming who would drench them in the Holy Spirit; and while water could cleanse a man's body, the Holy Spirit could cleanse his life and self and heart. Dr. G. J. Jeffrey had a favourite illustration. When he was making a telephone call through the operator and there was some delay, the operator would often say, "I'm trying to connect you." Then, when the connection had been effected, the operator faded out and left him in direct contact with the person to whom he wished to speak.
John's one aim was not to occupy the centre of the stage himself, but to try to connect men with the one who was greater and stronger than he; and men listened to him because he pointed, not to himself, but to the one whom all men need.
THE DAY OF DECISION (Mark 1:9-11)
1:9-11 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan; and as soon as he came up out of the water he saw the heavens being riven asunder and the Spirit coming down upon him, as a dove might come down; and there came a voice from heaven, "You are my beloved Son; I am well pleased with you."
To any thinking person the baptism of Jesus presents a problem. John's baptism was a baptism of repentance, meant for those who were sorry for their sins and who wished to express their determination to have done with them. What had such a baptism to do with Jesus? Was he not the sinless one, and was not such a baptism unnecessary and quite irrelevant as far as he was concerned? For Jesus the baptism was four things.
(i) It was the moment of decision. For thirty years he had stayed in Nazareth. Faithfully he had done his day's work and discharged his duties to his home. For long he must have been conscious that the time for him to go out had to come. He must have waited for a sign. The emergence of John was that sign. This, he saw, was the moment when he had to launch out upon his task.
In every life there come moments of decision which may be accepted or rejected. To accept them is to succeed; to reject them, or to shirk them, is to fail. As Lowell had it:
"Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide
In the strife of Truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God's new Messiah, offering each the bloom or
Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right
And the choice goes by for ever 'twixt that darkness and that
To every man there comes the unreturning decisive moment. As Shakespeare saw it:
"There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their lives
Is bound in shallows and in miseries."
The undecided life is the wasted life, the frustrated life, the discontented life, and often the tragic life. As John Oxenham saw it:
"To every man there openeth
A way and ways and a way;
The high soul treads the high way,
And the low soul gropes the low,
And in between on the misty flats,
The rest drift to and fro."
The drifting life can never be the happy life. Jesus knew when John emerged that the moment of decision had come. Nazareth was peaceful and home was sweet, but he answered the summons and the challenge of God.
(ii) It was the moment of identification. It is true that Jesus did not need to repent from sin; but here was a movement of the people back to God; and with that Godward movement he was determined to identify himself. A man might himself possess ease and comfort and wealth and still identify himself with a movement to bring better things to the downtrodden and the poor and the ill-housed and the over-worked and the underpaid. The really great identification is when a man identifies himself with a movement, not for his own sake, but for the sake of others. In John Bunyan's dream, Christian came in his journeying with Interpreter to the Palace which was heavily guarded and required a battle to seek an entry. At the door there sat the man with the inkhorn taking the names of those who would dare the assault. All were hanging back, then Christian saw "a man of a very stout countenance come up to the man that sat there to write, saying, 'Set down my name, sir'." When great things are afoot the Christian is bound to say, "Set down my name, sir," for that is what Jesus did when he came to be baptized.
(iii) It was the moment of approval. No man lightly leaves his home and sets out on an unknown way. He must be very sure that he is right. Jesus had decided on his course of action, and now he was looking for the seal of the approval of God. In the time of Jesus the Jews spoke of what they called the Bath (Hebrew #1323) Qol (Hebrew #6963), which means, the daughter of a voice. By this time they believed in a series of heavens, in the highest of which sat God in the light to which no man could approach. There were rare times when the heavens opened and God spoke; but, to them, God was so distant that it was only the far away echo of his voice that they heard. To Jesus the voice came directly. As Mark tens the story, this was a personal experience which Jesus had and not in any sense a demonstration to the crowd. The voice did not say, "This is my beloved Son," as Matthew has it (Matthew 3:17). It said, "Thou art my beloved Son," speaking direct to Jesus. At the baptism Jesus submitted his decision to God and that decision was unmistakably approved.
(iv) It was the moment of equipment. At that time the Holy Spirit descended upon him. There is a certain symbolism here. The Spirit descended as a dove might descend. The simile is not chosen by accident. The dove is the symbol of gentleness. Both Matthew and Luke tell us of the preaching of John. (Matthew 3:7-12; Luke 3:7-13.) John's was a message of the axe laid to the root of the tree, of the terrible sifting, of the consuming fire. It was a message of doom and not of good news. But from the very beginning the picture of the Spirit likened to a dove is a picture of gentleness. He will conquer, but the conquest will be the conquest of love.
THE TESTING TIME (Mark 1:12-13)
1:12-13 And immediately the Spirit thrust him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, and all the time he was being tested by Satan. The wild beasts were his companions, and the angels were helping him.
No sooner was the glory of the hour of the Baptism over than there came the battle of the temptations. One thing stands out here in such a vivid way that we cannot miss it. It was the Spirit who thrust Jesus out into the wilderness for the testing time. The very Spirit who came upon him at his baptism now drove him out for his test.
In this life it is impossible to escape the assault of temptation; but one thing is sure--temptations are not sent to us to make us fall; they are sent to strengthen the nerve and the sinew of our minds and hearts and souls. They are not meant for our ruin, but for our good. They are meant to be tests from which we emerge better warriors and athletes of God.
Suppose a lad is a football player; suppose he is doing well in the second team and showing real signs of promise, what will the team manager do? He certainly will not send him out to play for the third team in which he could walk through the game and never break sweat; he will send him out to play for the first team where he will be tested as he never was before and have the chance to prove himself. That is what temptation is meant to do--to enable us to prove our manhood and to emerge the stronger for the fight.
Forty days is a phrase which is not to be taken literally. It is the regular Hebrew phrase for a considerable time. Moses was said to be on the mountain with God for forty days (Exodus 24:18); it was for forty days that Elijah went in the strength of the meal the angel gave him (1 Kings 19:8). Just as we use the phrase ten days or so, so the Hebrews used the phrase forty days, not literally but simply to mean a fair length of time.
It was Satan who tempted Jesus. The development of the conception of Satan is very interesting.
The word Satan in Hebrew simply means an adversary; and in the Old Testament it is so used of ordinary human adversaries and opponents again and again. The angel of the Lord is the satan who stands in Balaam's way (Numbers 22:22); the Philistines fear that David may turn out to be their satan (1 Samuel 29:4); David regards Abishai as his satan (2 Samuel 19:22); Solomon declares that God has given him such peace and prosperity that he has no satan left to oppose him (1 Kings 5:4). The word began by meaning an adversary in the widest sense of the term.
But it takes a step on the downward path; it begins to mean one who pleads a case against a person. It is in this sense that it is used in the first chapter of Job. In that chapter Satan is no less than one of the sons of God (Job 1:6); but his particular task was to consider men (Job 1:7) and to search for some case that could be pleaded against them in the presence of God. He was the accuser of men before God. The word is so used in Job 2:2 and Zechariah 3:2. The task of Satan was to say everything that could be said against a man.
The other title of Satan is the Devil; the word devil comes from the Greek diabolos (Greek #1228), which literally means a slanderer. It is a small step from the thought of one who searches for everything that can be said against a man to the thought of one who deliberately and maliciously slanders man in the presence of God. But in the Old Testament Satan is still an emissary of God and not yet the malignant, supreme enemy of God. He is the adversary of man.
But now the word takes the last step on its downward course. Through their captivity the Jews learned something of Persian thought. Persian thought is based on the conception that in this universe there are two powers, a power of the light and a power of the dark, Ormuzd and Ahriman; the whole universe is a battle-ground between them and man must choose his side in that cosmic conflict. In point of fact that is precisely what life looks like and feels like. To put it in a word, in this world there is God and Gods Adversary. It was almost inevitable that Satan should come to be regarded as The Adversary par excellence. That is what his name means; that is what he always was to man; Satan becomes the essence of everything that is against God.
When we turn to the New Testament we find that it is the Devil or Satan who is behind human disease and suffering (Luke 13:16); it is Satan who seduces Judas (Luke 22:3); it is the devil whom we must fight (1 Peter 5:8-9; James 4:7); it is the devil whose power is being broken by the work of Christ (Luke 10:1-19); it is the devil who is destined for final destruction (Matthew 25:41). Satan is the power which is against God.
Here we have the whole essence of the Temptation story. Jesus had to decide how he was to do his work. He was conscious of a tremendous task and he was also conscious of tremendous powers. God was saying to him, "Take my love to men; love them till you die for them; conquer them by this unconquerable love even if you finish up upon a cross." Satan was saying to Jesus, "Use your power to blast men; obliterate your enemies; win the world by might and power and bloodshed." God said to Jesus, "Set up a reign of love." Satan said to Jesus, "Set up a dictatorship of force." Jesus had to choose that day between the way of God and the way of the Adversary of God.
Mark's brief story of the Temptations finishes with two vivid touches.
(i) The beasts were his companions. In the desert there roamed the leopard, the bear, the wild boar and the jackal. This is usually taken to be a vivid detail that adds to the grim terror of the scene. But perhaps it is not so. Perhaps this is a lovely thing, for perhaps it means that the beasts were Jesus' friends. Amidst the dreams of the golden age when the Messiah would come, the Jews dreamed of a day when the enmity between man and the beasts would no longer exist. "I will make for you a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground." (Hosea 2:18.) "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid.... The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den; they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain." (Isaiah 11:6-9.) In later days St. Francis preached to the beasts; and it may be that here we have a first foretaste of the loveliness when man and the beasts shall be at peace. It may be that here we see a picture in which the beasts recognized, before men did, their friend and their king.
(ii) The angels were helping him. There are ever the divine reinforcements in the hour of trial. When Elisha and his servant were shut up in Dothan with their enemies pressing in upon them and no apparent way of escape, Elisha opened the young man's eyes and all around he saw the horses and the chariots of fire which belonged to God. (2 Kings 6:17.) Jesus was not left to fight his battle alone--and neither are we.
THE MESSAGE OF THE GOOD NEWS (Mark 1:14-15)
1:14-15 After John had been committed to prison, Jesus came into Galilee, announcing the good news about God, and saying, "The time that was appointed has come; and the Kingdom of God is here. Repent and believe the good news."
There are in this summary of the message of Jesus three great, dominant words of the Christian faith.
(i) There is the good news. It was preeminently good news that Jesus came to bring to men. If we follow the word euaggelion (Greek #2098), good news, gospel through the New Testament we can see at least something of its content.
(a) It is good news of truth (Galatians 2:5; Colossians 1:5). Until Jesus came, men could only guess and grope after God. "O that I knew where I might find him," cried Job (Job 23:3). Marcus Aurelius said that the soul can see but dimly, and the word he uses is the Greek word for seeing things through water. But with the coming of Jesus men see clearly what God is like. No longer do they need to guess and grope; they know.
(b) It is good news of hope (Colossians 1:23). The ancient world was a pessimistic world. Seneca talked of "our helplessness in necessary things." In their struggle for goodness men were defeated. The coming of Jesus brings hope to the hopeless heart.
(c) It is good news of peace (Ephesians 6:15). The penalty of being a man is to have a split personality. In human nature the beast and the angel are strangely intermingled. It is told that once Schopenhauer, the gloomy philosopher, was found wandering. He was asked, "Who are you?" "I wish you could tell me," he answered. Robert Burns said of himself, "My life reminded me of a ruined temple. What strength, what proportion in some parts! What unsightly gaps, what prostrate ruins in others!" Man's trouble has always been that he is haunted both by sin and by goodness. The coming of Jesus unifies that disintegrated personality into one. He finds victory over his warring self by being conquered by Jesus Christ.
(d) It is good news of God's promise (Ephesians 3:6). It is true to say that men had always thought rather of a God of threats than a God of promises. All non-Christian religions think of a demanding God; only Christianity tells of a God who is more ready to give than we are to ask.
(e) It is good news of immortality (2 Timothy 1:10). To the pagan, life was the road to death; man was characteristically a dying man; but Jesus came with the good news that we are on the way to life rather than death.
(f) It is good news of salvation (Ephesians 1:13). That salvation is not merely a negative thing; it is also positive. It is not simply liberation from penalty and escape from past sin; it is the power to live life victoriously and to conquer sin. The message of Jesus is good news indeed.
(ii) There is the word repent. Now repentance is not so easy as sometimes we think. The Greek word metanoia (Greek #3341) literally means a change of mind. We are very apt to confuse two things--sorrow for the consequences of sin and sorrow for sin. Many a man is desperately sorry because of the mess that sin has got him into, but he very well knows that, if he could be reasonably sure that he could escape the consequences, he would do the same thing again. It is not the sin that he hates; it is its consequences.
Real repentance means that a man has come, not only to be sorry for the consequences of his sin, but to hate sin itself. Long ago that wise old writer, Montaigne, wrote in his autobiography, "Children should be taught to hate vice for its own texture, so that they will not only avoid it in action, but abominate it in their hearts--that the very thought of it may disgust them whatever form it takes." Repentance means that the man who was in love with sin comes to hate sin because of its exceeding sinfulness.
(iii) There is the word believe. "Believe," says Jesus, "in the good news." To believe in the good news simply means to take Jesus at his word, to believe that God is the kind of God that Jesus has told us about, to believe that God so loves the world that he will make any sacrifice to bring us back to himself, to believe that what sounds too good to be true is really true.
JESUS CHOOSES HIS FRIENDS (Mark 1:16-20)
1:16-20 While he was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew, Simon's brother, casting their nets into the sea, for they were fishermen. So Jesus said to them, "Follow me! and I will make you fishers of men." And immediately they left their nets and followed him. He went a little farther and he saw James, the son of Zebedee, and John, his brother, who were in their boat, mending their nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat, with the hired servants, and went away after him.
No sooner had Jesus taken his decision and decided his method than he proceeded to build up his staff. A leader must begin somewhere. He must get to himself a little band of kindred souls to whom he can unburden his own heart and on whose hearts he may write his message. So Mark here shows us Jesus literally laying the foundations of his Kingdom and calling his first followers.
There were many fishermen in Galilee. Josephus, who, for a time, was governor of Galilee, and who is the great historian of the Jews, tells us that in his day three hundred and thirty fishing boats sailed the waters of the lake. Ordinary people in Palestine seldom ate meat, probably not more than once a week. Fish was their staple diet (Luke 11:11; Matthew 7:10; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 24:42). Usually the fish was salt because there was no means of transporting fresh fish. Fresh fish was one of the greatest of all delicacies in the great cities like Rome. The very names of the towns on the lakeside show how important the fishing business was. Bethsaida (Greek #966) means House of Fish; Tarichaea means The Place of Salt Fish, and it was there that the fish were preserved for export to Jerusalem and even to Rome itself. The salt fish industry was big business in Galilee.
The fishermen used two kinds of nets, both of which are mentioned or implied in the gospels. They used the net called the sagene (Greek #4522). This was a kind of seine- or trawl-net. It was let out from the end of the boat and was so weighted that it stood, as it were, upright in the water. The boat then moved forward, and, as it moved, the four corners of the net were drawn together, so that the net became like a great bag moving through the water and enclosing the fish. The other kind of net, which Peter and Andrew were using here, was called the amphiblestron (Greek #293). It was a much smaller net. It was skilfully cast into the water by hand and was shaped rather like an umbrella.
It is naturally of the greatest interest to study the men whom Jesus picked out as his first followers.
(i) We must notice what they were. They were simple folk. They did not come from the schools and the colleges; they were not drawn from the ecclesiastics or the aristocracy; they were neither learned nor wealthy. They were fishermen. That is to say, they were ordinary people. No one ever believed in the ordinary man as Jesus did. Once George Bernard Shaw said, "I have never had any feeling for the working-classes, except a desire to abolish them, and replace them by sensible people." In The Patrician John Galsworthy makes Miltoun, one of the characters, say, "The mob! How I loathe it! I hate its mean stupidity, I hate the sound of its voice, and the look on its face it's so ugly, so little!" Once in a fit of temper Carlyle declared that there were twenty-seven millions of people in England--mostly fools! Jesus did not feel like that. Lincoln said, "God must love the common people--he made so many of them." It was as if Jesus said, "Give me twelve ordinary men and with them, if they will give themselves to me, I will change the world." A man should never think so much of what he is as of what Jesus Christ can make him.
(ii) We must notice what they were doing when Jesus called them. They were doing their day's work, catching the fish and mending the nets. It was so with many a prophet. "I am no prophet," said Amos, "nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel'." (Amos 7:14-15.) The call of God can come to a man, not only in the house of God, not only in the secret place, but in the middle of the day's work. As MacAndrew, Kipling's Scots engineer, had it:
"From coupler flange to spindle guide
I see thy hand, O God;
Predestination in the stride
Of yon connecting rod."
The man who lives in a world that is full of God cannot ever escape him.
(iii) We must notice how he called them. Jesus' summons was, "Follow me!" It is not to be thought that on this day he stood before them for the first time. No doubt they had stood in the crowd and listened; no doubt they had stayed to talk long after the rest of the crowd had drifted away. No doubt they already had felt the magic of his presence and the magnetism of his eyes. Jesus did not say to them, "I have a theological system which I would like you to investigate; I have certain theories that I would like you to think over; I have an ethical system I would like to discuss with you." He said, "Follow me!" It all began with a personal reaction to himself; it all began with that tug on the heart which begets the unshakeable loyalty. This is not to say that there are none who think themselves into Christianity; but for most of us following Christ is like falling in love. It has been said that "we admire people for reasons; we love them without reasons." The thing happens just because they are they and we are we. "I," said Jesus, "when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all men to myself." (John 12:32.) In by far the greatest number of cases a man follows Jesus Christ, not because of anything that Jesus said but because of everything that Jesus is.
(iv) Lastly we must note what Jesus offered them. He offered them a task. He called them not to ease but to service. Someone has said that what every man needs is "something in which he can invest his life." So Jesus called his men, not to a comfortable ease and not to a lethargic inactivity; he called them to a task in which they would have to spend themselves and burn themselves up, and, in the end, die for his sake and for the sake of their fellow men. He called them to a task wherein they could win something for themselves only by giving their all to him and to others.
JESUS BEGINS HIS CAMPAIGN (Mark 1:21-22)
1:21-22 So they came into Capernaum; and immediately on the Sabbath day Jesus went into the Synagogue and began to teach; and they were completely astonished at the way he taught, for he taught them like one who had personal authority, and not as the experts in the law did.
Mark's story unfolds in a series of logical and natural steps. Jesus recognized in the emergence of John God's call to action. He was baptized and received God's seal of approval and God's equipment for his task. He was tested by the devil and chose the method he would use and the way he would take. He chose his men that he might have a little circle of kindred spirits and that he might write his message upon them. And now he had to make a deliberate launching of his campaign. If a man had a message from God to give, the natural place to which he would turn would be the church where God's people met together. That is precisely what Jesus did. He began his campaign in the synagogue.
There are certain basic differences between the synagogue and the church as we know it today.
(a) The synagogue was primarily a teaching institution. The synagogue service consisted of only three things--prayer, the reading of God's word, and the exposition of it. There was no music, no singing and no sacrifice. It may be said that the Temple was the place of worship and sacrifice; the synagogue was the place of teaching and instruction. The synagogue was by far the more influential, for there was only one Temple. But the law laid it down that wherever there were ten Jewish families there must be a synagogue, and, therefore, wherever there was a colony of Jews, there was a synagogue. If a man had a new message to preach, the synagogue was the obvious place in which to preach it.
(b) The synagogue provided an opportunity to deliver such a message. The synagogue had certain officials. There was the Ruler of the synagogue. He was responsible for the administration of the affairs of the synagogue and for the arrangements for its services. There were the distributors of alms. Daily a collection was taken in cash and in kind from those who could afford to give. It was then distributed to the poor; the very poorest were given food for fourteen meals per week. There was the Chazzan. He is the man whom the King James Version describes as the minister. He was responsible for the taking out and storing away of the sacred rolls on which scripture was written; for the cleaning of the synagogue; for the blowing of the blasts on the silver trumpet which told people that the Sabbath had come; for the elementary education of the children of the community. One thing the synagogue had not and that was a permanent preacher or teacher. When the people met at the synagogue service it was open to the Ruler to call on any competent person to give the address and the exposition. There was no professional ministry whatsoever. That is why Jesus was able to open his campaign in the synagogues. The opposition had not yet stiffened into hostility. He was known to be a man with a message; and for that very reason the synagogue of every community provided him with a pulpit from which to instruct and to appeal to men.
When Jesus did teach in the synagogue the whole method and atmosphere of his teaching was like a new revelation. He did not teach like the scribes, the experts in the law. Who were these scribes?
To the Jews the most sacred thing in the world was the Torah, the Law. The core of the law is the Ten Commandments, but the Law was taken to mean the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, as they are called. To the Jews this Law was completely divine. It had, so they believed, been given direct by God to Moses. It was absolutely holy and absolutely binding. They said, "He who says that the Torah is not from God has not part in the future world." "He who says that Moses wrote even one verse of his own knowledge is a denier and despiser of the word of God."
If the Torah is so divine two things emerge. First, it must be the supreme rule of faith and life; and second, it must contain everything necessary to guide and to direct life. If that be so the Torah demands two things. First, it must obviously be given the most careful and meticulous study. Second, the Torah is expressed in great, wide principles; but, if it contains direction and guidance for all life, what is in it implicitly must be brought out. The great laws must become rules and regulations--so their argument ran.
To give this study and to supply this development a class of scholars arose. These were the Scribes, the experts in the law. The title of the greatest of them was Rabbi. The scribes had three duties.
(i) They set themselves, out of the great moral principles of the Torah, to extract rules and regulations for every possible situation in life. Obviously this was a task that was endless. Jewish religion began with the great moral laws; it ended with an infinity of rules and regulations. It began as religion; it ended as legalism.
(ii) It was the task of the scribes to transmit and to teach this law and its developments. These deduced and extracted rules and regulations were never written down; they are known as the Oral Law. Although never written down they were considered to be even more binding than the written law. From generation to generation of scribes they were taught and committed to memory. A good student had a memory which was like "a well lined with lime which loses not one drop."
(iii) The scribes had the duty of giving judgment in individual cases; and, in the nature of things, practically every individual case must have produced a new law.
Wherein did Jesus' teaching differ so much from the teaching of the Scribes? He taught with personal authority. No Scribe ever gave a decision on his own. He would always begin, "There is a teaching that..." and would then quote all his authorities. If he made a statement he would buttress it with this, that and the next quotation from the great legal masters of the past. The last thing he ever gave was an independent judgment. How different was Jesus! When he spoke, he spoke as if he needed no authority beyond himself. He spoke with utter independence. He cited no authorities and quoted no experts. He spoke with the finality of the voice of God. To the people it was like a breeze from heaven to hear someone speak like that. The terrific, positive certainty of Jesus was the very antithesis of the careful quotations of the Scribes. The note of personal authority rang out--and that is a note which captures the ear of every man.
THE FIRST VICTORY OVER THE POWERS OF EVIL (Mark 1:23-28)
1:23-28 There was in the synagogue a man in the grip of an unclean spirit. Immediately he broke into a shout. "What have we to do with you, Jesus of Nazareth?" he said. "Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are you are The Holy One of God." Jesus spoke sternly to him. "Be silent," he said, "and come out of him." When the unclean spirit had convulsed the man and had cried with a great cry it came out of him. They were all so astonished that they kept asking each other, "What is this? This is a new kind of teaching. He gives his orders with authority even to unclean spirits and they obey him." And immediately the report about Jesus went out everywhere over the whole surrounding district of Galilee.
If Jesus' words had amazed the people in the synagogue, his deeds left them thunderstruck. In the synagogue there was a man in the grip of an unclean spirit. He created a disturbance and Jesus healed him.
All through the gospels we keep meeting people who had unclean spirits and who were possessed by demons or devils. What lies behind this?
The Jews, and indeed the whole ancient world, believed strongly in demons and devils. As Harnack put it, "The whole world and the circumambient atmosphere were filled with devils; not merely idolatry, but every phase and form of life was ruled by them. They sat on thrones, they hovered around cradles. The earth was literally a hell."
Dr. A. Rendle Short cites a fact which shows the intensity with which the ancient world believed in demons. In many ancient cemeteries skulls were found which had been trepanned. That is to say, a hole had been bored in the skull. In one cemetery, out of one hundred and twenty skulls, six had been trepanned. With the limited surgical technique available that was no small operation. Further, it was clear from the bone growth that the trepanning had been done during life. It was also clear that the hole in the skull was too small to be of any physical or surgical value; and it is known that the removed disc of bone was often worn as an amulet round the neck. The reason for the trepanning was to allow the demon to escape from the body of the man. If primitive surgeons were prepared to undertake that operation, and if men were prepared to undergo it, the belief in demon-possession must have been intensely real.
Where did these demons come from? There were three answers to that question. (i) Some believed that they were as old as creation itself. (ii) Some believed that they were the spirits of wicked men who had died and were still carrying on their malignant work. (iii) Most people connected the demons with the old story in Genesis 6:1-8 (compare 2 Peter 2:4-5).
The Jews elaborated the story in this way. There were two angels who forsook God and came to this earth because they were attracted by the beauty of mortal women. Their names were Assael and Shemachsai. One of them returned to God; the other remained on earth and gratified his lust; and the demons are the children that he begat and their children.
The collective word for demons is mazzikin, which means one who does harm. So the demons were malignant beings intermediate between God and man who were out to work men harm.
The demons, according to Jewish belief, could eat and drink and beget children. They were terrifyingly numerous. There were, according to some, seven and a half millions of them; every man had ten thousand on his right hand and ten thousand on his left. They lived in unclean places, such as tombs and spots where there was no cleansing water. They lived in the desert where their howling could be heard--hence the phrase a howling desert. They were specially dangerous to the lonely traveller, to the woman in child-birth, to the bride and bridegroom, to children who were out after dark, and to those who voyaged at night. They were specially active in the midday heat and between sunset and sunrise. There was a demon of blindness and a demon of leprosy and a demon of heart-disease. They could transfer their malign gifts to men. For instance, the evil eye which could turn good fortune into bad and in which all believed was given to a man by the demons. They worked along with certain animals--the serpent, the bull, the donkey and the mosquito. The male demons were known as shedim, and the female as lilin, after Lilith. The female demons had long hair and were the enemies of children. That is why children had their guardian angels (Matthew 18:10).
It does not matter whether or not we believe in all this; whether it is true or not is beside the point. The point is that the people in New Testament times did. We still may use the phrase Poor devil! That is a relic of the old belief. When a man believed himself to be possessed he was "conscious of himself and also of another being who constrains and controls him from within." That explains why the demon-possessed in Palestine so often cried out when they met Jesus. They knew that Jesus was believed by some at least to be the Messiah; they knew that the reign of the Messiah was the end of the demons; and the man who believed himself to be possessed spoke as a demon when he came into the presence of Jesus.
There were many exorcists who claimed to be able to cast out demons. So real was this belief that by A.D. 340 the Christian church actually possessed an Order of Exorcists. But there was this difference--the ordinary Jewish and pagan exorcist used elaborate incantations and spells and magical rites. Jesus with one word of clear, simple, brief authority exorcised the demon from a man. No one had ever seen anything like this before. The power was not in the spell, the formula, the incantation, the elaborate rite; the power was in Jesus and men were astonished.
What are we to say to all this? Paul Tournier in A Doctor's Casebook writes, "Doubtless there are many doctors who in their struggle against disease have had, like me, the feeling that they were confronting, not something passive, but a clever and resourceful enemy." Dr. Rendle Short comes tentatively to the conclusion that "the happenings in this world, in fact, and its moral disasters, its wars and wickedness, its physical catastrophes, and its sicknesses, may be part of a great warfare due to the interplay of forces such as we see in the book of Job, the malice of the devil on one hand and the restraints imposed by God on the other."
This is a subject on which we cannot dogmatize. We may take three different positions. (i) We may relegate the whole matter of demon-possession to the sphere of primitive thought and say that it was a primitive way of accounting for things in the days before man knew any more about men's bodies and men's minds. (ii) We may accept the fact of demon-possession as being true in New Testament times and as being still true today. (iii) If we accept the first position we have to explain the attitude and actions of Jesus. Either he knew no more on this matter than the people of his day, and that is a thing we can easily accept for Jesus was not a scientist and did not come to teach science. Or he knew perfectly well that he could never cure the man in trouble unless he assumed the reality of the disease. It was real to the man and had to be treated as such or it could never be cured. In the end we come to the conclusion that there are some answers we do not know.
A PRIVATE MIRACLE (Mark 1:29-31)
1:29-31 And immediately, when they had come out of the synagogue, they went, along with Peter and John, into the house of Simon and Andrew. Peter's mother-in-law was in bed with an attack of fever. Immediately they spoke to Jesus about her. He went up to her and took her by the hand and raised her up, and the fever left her, and she attended to their needs.
In the synagogue Jesus had spoken and acted in the most amazing way. The synagogue service ended and Jesus went with his friends to Peter's house. According to Jewish custom the main Sabbath meal came immediately after the synagogue service, at the sixth hour, that is at 12 o'clock midday. (The Jewish day began at 6 a.m. and the hours are counted from then.) Jesus might well have claimed the right to rest after the exciting and exhausting experience of the synagogue service; but once again his power was appealed to and once again he spent himself for others. This miracle tells us something about three people.
(i) It tells us something about Jesus. He did not require an audience in order to exert his power; he was just as prepared to heal in the little circle of a cottage as in the great crowd of a synagogue. He was never too tired to help; the need of others took precedence over his own desire for rest. But above all, we see here, as we saw in the synagogue, the uniqueness of the methods of Jesus. There were many exorcists in the time of Jesus, but they worked with elaborate incantations, and formulae, and spells, and magical apparatus. In the synagogue Jesus had spoken one authoritative sentence and the healing was complete.
Here we have the same thing again. Peter's mother-in-law was suffering from what the Talmud called "a burning fever." It was, and still is, very prevalent in that particular part of Galilee. The Talmud actually lays down the methods of dealing with it. A knife wholly made of iron was tied by a braid of hair to a thorn bush. On successive days there was repeated, first, Exodus 3:2-3; second, Exodus 3:4; and finally Exodus 3:5. Then a certain magical formula was pronounced, and thus the cure was supposed to be achieved. Jesus completely disregarded all the paraphernalia of popular magic, and with a gesture and a word of unique authority and power, he healed the woman.
The word that the Greek uses for authority in the previous passage is exousia (Greek #1849); and exousia was defined as unique knowledge together with unique power; that is precisely what Jesus possessed, and that is what he was prepared to exercise in a cottage. Paul Tournier writes, "My patients very often say to me, 'I admire the patience with which you listen to everything I tell you.' It is not patience at all, but interest." A miracle to Jesus was not a means of increasing his prestige; to help was not a laborious and disagreeable duty; he helped instinctively, because he was supremely interested in all who needed his help.
(ii) It tells us something about the disciples. They had not known Jesus long, but already they had begun to take all their troubles to him. Peter's mother-in-law was ill; the simple home was upset; and it was for the disciples the most natural thing in the world to tell Jesus all about it.
Paul Tournier tells how one of life's greatest discoveries came to him. He used to visit an old Christian pastor who never let him go without praying with him. He was struck by the extreme simplicity of the old man's prayers. It seemed just a continuation of an intimate conversation that the old saint was always carrying on with Jesus. Paul Tournier goes on, "When I got back home I talked it over with my wife, and together we asked God to give us also the close fellowship with Jesus the old pastor had. Since then he has been the centre of my devotion and my travelling companion. He takes pleasure in what I do (compare Ecclesiastes 9:7), and concerns himself with it. He is a friend with whom I can discuss everything that happens in my life. He shares my joy and my pain, my hopes and fears. He is there when a patient speaks to me from his heart, listening to him with me and better than I can. And when the patient is gone I can talk to him about it."
Therein there lies the very essence of the Christian life. As the hymn has it, "Take it to the Lord in prayer." Thus early the disciples had learned what became the habit of a lifetime--to take all their troubles to Jesus and to ask his help for them.
(iii) It tells us something about Peter's wife's mother. No sooner was she healed than she began to attend to their needs. She used her recovered health for renewed service. A great Scottish family has the motto "Saved to Serve." Jesus helps us that we may help others.
THE BEGINNING OF THE CROWDS (Mark 1:32-34)
1:32-34 When evening had come and when the sun had set, they kept bringing to him all those who were ill and demon-possessed. The whole city had crowded together to the door; and he healed many who were ill with various diseases and cast out many demons; and he forbade the demons to speak because they knew him.
The things that Jesus had done in Capernaum could not be concealed. The emergence of so great a new power and authority was not something which could be kept secret. So the evening found Peter's house besieged with crowds seeking Jesus' healing touch. They waited until evening because the law forbade the carrying of any burden through a town on the Sabbath day (compare Jeremiah 17:24). That would have been to work and work was forbidden. They had, of course, no clocks or watches in those days; the Sabbath ran from 6 p.m. to 6 p.m.; and the law was that the Sabbath was ended and the day had finished when three stars came out in the sky. So the people of Capernaum waited until the sun had set and the stars were out and then they came, carrying their sick, to Jesus; and he healed them.
Three times we have seen Jesus healing people. First he healed in the synagogue; second, he healed in the house of his friends; and now he healed in the street. Jesus recognized the claim of everyone. It was said of Dr. Johnson that to be in misfortune was to be assured of his friendship and support. Wherever there was trouble Jesus was ready to use his power. He selected neither the place nor the person; he realized the universal claim of human need.
The people flocked to Jesus because they recognized in him a man who could do things. There were plenty who could talk and expound and lecture and preach; but here was one who dealt not only in words but also in actions. It has been said that "if a man can make a better mousetrap than his neighbours, the public will beat a path to his house even if he lives in the middle of a wood." The person people want is the effective person. Jesus could, and can, produce results.
But there is the beginning of tragedy here. The crowds came, but they came because they wanted something out of Jesus. They did not come because they loved him; they did not come because they had caught a glimpse of some new vision; in the last analysis they wanted to use him. That is what nearly everyone wants to do with God and his Son. For one prayer that goes up to God in days of prosperity ten thousand go up in time of adversity. Many a man who has never prayed when the sun was shining begins to pray when the cold winds come.
Someone has said that many people regard religion as belonging "to the ambulance corps and not to the firing-line of life." Religion to them is a crisis affair. It is only when they have got life into a mess, or when life deals them some knock-out blow that they begin to remember God. We must all go to Jesus for he alone can give us the things we need for life; but if that going and these gifts do not produce in us an answering love and gratitude there is something tragically wrong. God is not someone to be used in the day of misfortune; he is someone to be loved and remembered every day of our lives.
THE QUIET HOUR AND THE CHALLENGE OF ACTION (Mark 1:35-39)
1:35-39 Very early, when it was still night, Jesus rose and went out. He went away to a deserted place and there he was praying. Simon and his friends tracked him down and said to him, "They are all searching for you," Jesus said to them, "Let us go somewhere else, to the nearby villages, that I may proclaim the good news there too, for that is why I came forth." So he went to their synagogues, all over Galilee, proclaiming the good news as he went, and casting out demons.
Simply to read the record of the things that happened at Capernaum is to see that Jesus was left with no time alone. Now Jesus knew well that he could not live without God; that if he was going to be forever giving out, he must be at least sometimes taking in; that if he was going to spend himself for others, he must ever and again summon spiritual reinforcements to his aid. He knew that he could not live without prayer. In a little book entitled The Practice of Prayer, Dr. A. D. Belden has some great definitions. "Prayer may be defined as the appeal of the soul to God." Not to pray is to be guilty of the incredible folly of ignoring "the possibility of adding God to our resources." "In prayer we give the perfect mind of God an opportunity to feed our mental powers." Jesus knew this; he knew that if he was to meet men he must first meet God. If prayer was necessary for Jesus, how much more must it be necessary for us?
Even there they sought him out. There was no way in which Jesus could shut the door. Once Rose Macaulay, the novelist, said that all she demanded from this life was "a room of her own." That is precisely what Jesus never had. A great doctor has said that the duty of medicine is "sometimes to heal, often to afford relief, and always to bring consolation." That duty was always upon Jesus. It has been said that a doctor's duty is "to help men to live and to die"--and men are always living and dying. It is human nature to try to put up the barriers and to have time and peace to oneself; that is what Jesus never did. Conscious as he was of his own weariness and exhaustion, he was still more conscious of the insistent cry of human need. So when they came for him he rose from his knees to meet the challenge of his task. Prayer will never do our work for us; what it will do is to strengthen us for work which must be done.
Jesus set out on a preaching tour of the synagogues of Galilee. In Mark this tour is dismissed in one verse, but it must have taken weeks and even months to do it. As he went he preached and he healed. There were three pairs of things which Jesus never separated.
(i) He never separated words and actions. He never thought that a work was done when that work was stated; he never believed that his duty was completed when he had exhorted men to God and to goodness. Always the statement and the exhortation were put into action. Fosdick somewhere tens of a student who bought the best possible books and the best possible equipment and got a special study chair with a special bookrest to make study easy, and then sat down in the chair--and went to sleep. The man who deals in words with no actions to follow is very like that.
(ii) He never separated soul and body. There have been types of Christianity which spoke as if the body did not matter. But man is both soul and body. And the task of Christianity is to redeem the whole man and not just part of him. It is indeed blessedly true that a man may be starving, living in a hovel, in distress and pain and yet have sweet times with God; but that is no reason at all for leaving him in such a case. Missions to primitive races do not only take the Bible; they take education and medicine; they take the school and the hospital. It is quite wrong to talk about the social gospel as if it were an extra, or an option, or even a separate part of the Christian message. The Christian message is one and it preaches and works for the good of a man's body as well as the good of his soul.
(iii) Jesus never separated earth and heaven. There are those who are so concerned with heaven that they forget all about earth and so become impractical visionaries. There are those who are so concerned with earth that they forget about heaven and limit good to material good. The dream of Jesus was a time when God's will would be done in earth as it is in heaven, (Matthew 6:10) and earth and heaven be one.
THE LEPER IS CLEANSED (Mark 1:40-45)
1:40-45 A leper came to him, asking him to help him and kneeling before him. "If you are willing to do so," he said, "you are able to cleanse me." Jesus was moved with pity to the depths of his being. He stretched out his hand and touched him. "I am willing," Jesus said, "be cleansed." Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed. Immediately Jesus sent him away with a stern injunction. "See to it," he said to him, "that you tell no man anything about this; but go and show yourself to the priest, and bring the offering for cleansing which Moses laid down, so that you may prove to them that you really are healed." He went away and began to proclaim the story at length and to spread it all over. The result was that it was not possible for Jesus to come openly into any town, but he had to stay outside in the lonely places; and they kept coming to him from all over.
In the New Testament there is no disease regarded with more terror and pity than leprosy. When Jesus sent out the Twelve he commanded them, "Heal the sick, cleanse lepers." (Matthew 18:8.) The fate of the leper was truly hard. E. W. G. Masterman in his article on leprosy in the Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, from which we have drawn much of the information that follows, says, "No other disease reduces a human being for so many years to so hideous a wreck." Let us look first at the facts.
There are three kinds of leprosy. (i) There is nodular or tubercular leprosy. It begins with an unaccountable lethargy and pains in the joints. Then there appear on the body, especially on the back, symmetrical discoloured patches. On them little nodules form, at first pink, then turning brown. The skin is thickened. The nodules gather specially in the folds of the cheek, the nose, the lips and the forehead. The whole appearance of the face is changed till the man loses his human appearance and looks, as the ancients said, like a lion or a satyr. The nodules grow larger and larger; they ulcerate and from them comes a foul discharge. The eye-brows fail out; the eyes become staring; the voice becomes hoarse and the breath wheezes because of the ulceration of the vocal chords. The hands and the feet also ulcerate. Slowly the sufferer becomes a mass of ulcerated growths. The average course of the disease is nine years, and it ends in mental decay, coma and ultimately death. the sufferer becomes utterly repulsive both to himself and to others.
(ii) There is anaesthetic leprosy. The initial stages are the same; but the nerve trunks also are affected. The infected area loses all sensation. This may happen without the sufferer knowing that it has happened; and he may not realize that it has happened until he suffers some burning or scalding and finds that there is no feeling whatsoever where pain ought to be. As the disease develops the injury to the nerves causes discoloured patches and blisters. The muscles waste away; the tendons contract until the hands become like claws. There is always disfigurement of the finger nails. There ensues chronic ulceration of the feet and of the hands and then the progressive loss of fingers and of toes, until in the end a whole hand or a whole foot may drop off. The duration of the disease is anything from twenty to thirty years. It is a kind of terrible progressive death of the body.
(iii) The third kind of leprosy is a type--the commonest of all--where nodular and anaesthetic leprosy are mixed.
That is leprosy proper, and there is no doubt that there were many lepers like that in Palestine in the time of Jesus. From the description in Leviticus 13:1-59 it is quite clear that in New Testament times the term leprosy was also used to cover other skin diseases. It seems to have been used to include psoriasis, a disease which covers the body with white scales, and which would give rise to the phrase "a leper as white as snow." It seems also to have included ring-worm which is still very common in the East. The Hebrew word used in Leviticus for leprosy is tsara'ath (Hebrew #6883). Now Leviticus 13:47 speaks of a tsara'ath (Hebrew #6883) of garments, and a tsara'ath (Hebrew #6883) of houses is dealt with in Leviticus 14:33. Such a blemish on a garment would be some kind of mould or fungus; and on a house it would be some kind of dry-rot in the wood or destructive lichen on the stone. The word tsara'ath (Hebrew #6883), leprosy in Jewish thought, seems to have covered any kind of creeping skin disease. Very naturally, with medical knowledge in an extremely primitive state, diagnosis did not distinguish between the different kinds of skin disease and included both the deadly and incurable and the non-fatal and comparatively harmless under the one inclusive title.
Any such skin disease rendered the sufferer unclean. He was banished from the fellowship of men; he must dwell alone outside the camp; he must go with rent clothes, bared head, a covering upon his upper lip, and as he went he must give warning of his polluted presence with the cry, "Unclean, unclean!" We see the same thing in the Middle Ages, which merely applied the Mosaic law. The priest, wearing his stole and carrying a crucifix, led the leper into the church, and read the burial service over him. The leper was a man who was already dead, though still alive. He had to wear a black garment that all might recognize and live in a leper- or lazar-house. He must not come into a church service but while the service went on he might peer through the leper "squint" cut in the walls. The leper had not only to bear the physical pain of his disease; he had to bear the mental anguish and the heart-break of being completely banished from human society and totally shunned.
If ever a leper was cured--and real leprosy was incurable, so it is some of the other skin diseases which must be referred to--he had to undergo a complicated ceremony of restoration which is described in Leviticus 14:1-57 . He was examined by the priest. Two birds were taken and one was killed over running water. In addition there was taken cedar, scarlet and hyssop. These things and the living bird were dipped in the blood of the dead bird and then the live bird was allowed to go free. The man washed himself and his clothes and shaved himself. Seven days then elapsed and he was re-examined. He had then to shave his hair, his head, his eye-brows. Certain sacrifices were made--two male lambs without blemish and one ewe lamb; three tenth deals of fine flour mingled with oil and one log of oil. The amounts were less for the poor. The restored sufferer was touched on the tip of the right ear, the right thumb and the right great toe with blood and oil. He was given a final examination and, if clear of the disease, he was snowed to go with a certificate that he was clean.
Here is one of the most revealing pictures of Jesus.
(i) He did not drive away a man who had broken the law. The leper had no right to have spoken to him at all, but Jesus met the desperation of human need with an understanding compassion.
(ii) Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. He touched the man who was unclean. To Jesus he was not unclean; he was simply a human soul in desperate need.
(iii) Having cleansed him, Jesus sent him to fulfil the prescribed ritual. He fulfilled the human law and human righteousness. He did not recklessly defy the conventions, but, when need be, submitted to them.
Here we see compassion, power and wisdom all conjoined.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Mark 1:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/mark-1.html. 1956-1959.