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Bible Commentaries

Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture

Mark 1

 

 

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Verse 1

Mark

THE STRONG FORERUNNER AND THE STRONGER SON

WHAT ‘THE GOSPEL’ IS

Mark 1:1.

My purpose now is to point out some of the various connections in which the New Testament uses that familiar phrase, ‘the gospel,’ and briefly to gather some of the important thoughts which these suggest. Possibly the process may help to restore freshness to a word so well worn that it slips over our tongues almost unnoticed and excites little thought.

The history of the word in the New Testament books is worth notice. It seldom occurs in those lives of our Lord which now are emphatically so called, and where it does occur, it is ‘the gospel of the Kingdom’ quite as frequently as ‘the gospel’ of the King. The word is never used in Luke, and only twice in the Acts of the Apostles, both times in quotations. The Apostle John never employs it, either in his ‘gospel’ or in his epistles, and in the Apocalypse the word is only once found, and then it may be a question whether it refers to the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. John thought of the word which he had to proclaim as ‘the message,’ ‘the witness,’ ‘the truth,’ rather than as ‘the gospel.’ We search for the expression in vain in the epistles of James, Jude, and to the Hebrews. Thrice it is used by Peter. The great bulk of the instances of its occurrence are in the writings of Paul, who, if not the first to use it, at any rate is the source from which the familiar meaning of the phrase, as describing the sum total of the revelation in Jesus Christ, has flowed.

The various connections in which the word is employed are remarkable and instructive. We can but touch lightly on the more important lessons which they are fitted to teach.

I. The Gospel is the ‘Gospel of Christ.’

On our Lord’s own lips and in the records of His life we find, as has already been noticed, the phrase, ‘the gospel of the kingdom’-the good news of the establishment on earth of the rule of God in the hearts and lives of men. The person of the King is not yet defined by it. The diffused dawn floods the sky, and upon them that sit in darkness the greatness of its light shines, before the sun is above the horizon. The message of the Forerunner proclaimed, like a herald’s clarion, the coming of the Kingdom, before he could say to a more receptive few, ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’ The order is first the message of the Kingdom, then the discovery of the King. And so that earlier phrase falls out of use, and when once Christ’s life had been lived, and His death died, the gospel is no longer the message of an impersonal revolution in the world’s attitude to God’s will, but the biography of Him who is at once first subject and monarch of the Kingdom of Heaven, and by whom alone we are brought into it. The standing expression comes to be ‘the gospel of Christ.’

It is His, not so much because He is the author, as because He is the subject of it. It is the good news about Christ. He is its contents and great theme. And so we are led up at once to the great central peculiarity of Christianity, namely that it is a record of historical fact, and that all the world’s life and blessedness lie in the story of a human life and death. Christ is Christianity. His biography is the good news for every child of man.

Neither a philosophy nor a morality, but a history, is the true good news for men. The world is hungry, and when it cries for bread wise men give it a stone, but God gives it the fare it needs in the bread that comes down from Heaven. Though it be of small account in many people’s eyes, like the common barley cakes, the poor man’s food, it is what we all need; and humble people, and simple people, and uneducated people, and barbarous people, and dying people, and the little children can all eat and live. They would find little to keep them from starving in anything more ambitious, and would only break their teeth in mumbling the dry bones of philosophies and moralities. But the story of their Brother who has lived and died for them feeds heart and mind and will, fancy and imagination, memory and hope, nourishes the whole nature into health and beauty, and alone deserves to be called good news for men.

All that the world needs lies in that story. Out of it have come peace and gladness to the soul, light for the understanding, cleansing for the conscience, renovation for the will, which can be made strong and free by submission, a resting-place for the heart, and a starting-point and a goal for the loftiest flights of hope. Out of it have come the purifying of family and civic life, the culture of all noble social virtues, the sanctity of the household, and the elevation of the state. The thinker has found the largest problems raised and solved therein. The setting forth of a loftier morality, and the enthusiasm which makes the foulest nature aspire to and reach its heaven-touching heights, are found together there. To it poet and painter, architect and musician, owe their noblest themes. The good news of the world is the story of Christ’s life and death. Let us be thankful for its form; let us be thankful for its substance.

But we must not forget that, as Paul, who is so fond of the word, has taught us, the historical fact needs some explanation and commentary to make the history a gospel. He has declared to us ‘the gospel which he preached,’ and to which he ascribes saving power, and he gives these as its elements, ‘How that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day, according to the Scriptures.’ There are three facts-death, burial, resurrection. These are the things that any eye could have seen. Are these the gospel? Is there any saving power in them? Not unless you add the commentary ‘for our sins,’ and ‘according to the Scriptures.’ That death was a death for us all, by which we are delivered from our sins-that is the main thing; and in subordination to that thought, the other that Christ’s death was the accomplishment of prophecies-these make the history a gospel. The bare facts, without the exhibition of their purpose and meaning, are no more a gospel than any other story of a death would be. The facts with any lower explanation of their meaning are no gospel, any more than the story of the death of Socrates or any innocent martyr would be. If you would know the good news that will lift your heavy heart from sorrow and break your chains of sin, that will put music into your life and make your days blaze into brightness as when the sunlight strikes some sullen mountain-side that lay black in shadow, you must take the fact with its meaning, and find your gospel in the life and death of Him who is more than example and more than martyr. ‘How that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures,’ is ‘the gospel of Christ.’

II. The Gospel of Christ is the ‘Gospel of God.’

This form of the expression, though by no means so frequent as the other, is found throughout Paul’s epistles, thrice in the earliest-Thessalonians [1 Thessalonians 2:8], once in the great Epistle to the Romans [Romans 1:1], once in Corinthians [2 Corinthians 11:7], and once in a modified form in the pathetic letter from the dungeon, which the old man addressed to his ‘son Timothy’ [1 Timothy 1:11]. It is also found in the writings of Peter [1 Peter 4:17]. In all these cases the phrase, ‘the gospel of God,’ may mean the gospel which has God for its author or origin, but it seems rather to mean ‘which has God for its subject.’

It was, as we saw, mainly designated as the good news about Jesus Christ, but it is also the good news about God. So in one and the same set of facts we have the history of Jesus and the revelation of God. They are not only the biography of a man, but they are the unveiling of the heart of God. These Scripture writers take it for granted that their readers will understand that paradox, and do not stop to explain how they change the statement of the subject matter of their message, in this extraordinary fashion, between their Master who had lived and died on earth, and the Unseen Almightiness throned above all heavens. How comes that to be?

It is not that the gospel has two subjects, one of which is the matter of one portion, and the other of another. It does not sometimes speak of Christ, and sometimes rise to tell us of God. It is always speaking of both, and when its subject is most exclusively the man Christ Jesus, it is then most chiefly the Father God. How comes that to be? Surely this unconscious shifting of the statement of their theme, which these writers practise as a matter of course, shows us how deeply the conviction had stamped itself on their spirits, ‘He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father,’ and how the point of view from which they had learned to look on all the sweet and wondrous story of their Master’s life and death, was that of a revelation of the deepest heart of God.

And so must we look on that whole career, from the cradle to the cross, from Calvary to Olivet, if we are to know its deepest tenderness and catch its gladdest notes. That such a man has lived and died is beautiful, and the portrait will hang for ever as that of the fairest of the children of men. But that in that life and death we have our most authentic knowledge of what God is, and that all the pity and truth, the gentleness and the brotherliness, the tears and the self-surrender, are a revelation to us of God; and that the cross, with its awful sorrow and its painful death, tells us not only how a man gave himself for those whom he loved, but how God loves the world and how tremendous is His law-this is good news of God indeed. We have to look for our truest knowledge of Him not in the majesties of the starry heavens, nor in the depths of our own souls, not in the scattered tokens of His character given by the perplexed order of the world, nor in the intuitions of the wise, but in the life and death of His Son, whose tears are the pity of God as well as the compassion of a man, and in whose life and death the whole world may behold ‘the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person,’ and be delivered from all their fears of an angry, and all their doubts of an unknown, God.

There is a double modification of this phrase. We hear of ‘the gospel of the grace of God’ and ‘the gospel of the glory of God,’ which latter expression, rendered in the English version misleadingly ‘the glorious gospel,’ is given in its true shape in the Revised Version. The great theme of the message is further defined in these two noteworthy forms. It is the tender love of God in exercise to lowly creatures who deserve something else that the gospel is busy in setting forth, a love which flows forth unbought and unmotived save by itself, like some stream from a hidden lake high up among the pure Alpine snows. The story of Christ’s work is the story of God’s rich, unmerited love, bending down to creatures far beneath, and making a radiant pathway from earth to heaven, like the sevenfold rainbow. It is so, not merely because this mission is the result of God’s love, but also because His grace is God’s grace, and therefore every act of Christ which speaks His own tenderness is therein an apocalypse of God.

The second of these two expressions, ‘the gospel of the glory of God,’ leads up to that great thought that the true glory of the divine nature is its tenderness. The lowliness and death of Christ are the glory of God! Not in the awful attributes which separate that inconceivable Nature from us, not in the eternity of His existence, nor in the Infinitude of His Being, not in the Omnipotence of His unwearied arm, nor in fire-eyed Omniscience, but in the pity and graciousness which bend lovingly over us, is the true glory of God. These pompous ‘attributes’ are but the fringes of the brightness, the living white heart of which is love. God’s glory is God’s grace, and the purest expression of both is found there, where Jesus hangs dying in the dark, The true throne of God’s glory is not builded high in a remote heaven, flashing intolerable brightness and set about with bending principalities and powers, but it is the Cross of Calvary. The story of the ‘grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,’ with its humiliation and shame, is the ‘gospel of the grace,’ and therefore is the ‘gospel of the glory, of God.’

III. The good news of Christ and of God is the gospel of our salvation and peace.

We read of ‘the gospel of your salvation’ [Ephesians 1:13], and in the same letter [Mark 6:15] of ‘the gospel of peace.’ In these expressions we pass from the consideration of the author or of the subject matter of the good news to that of its purpose and issue. It is meant to bring to men, and it does in fact bring to all who accept it, those wide and complex blessings described by those two great words.

That good news about Christ and God brings to a man salvation, if he believes it. To know and feel that I have a loving Father who has so cared for me and all my brethren that He has sent His Son to live and die for me, is surely enough to deliver me from all the bonds and death of sin, and to quicken me into humble consecration to His service. And such emancipation from the burden and misery of sin, from the gnawing consciousness of evil and the weakening sense of guilt, from the dominion of wrong tastes and habits, and from the despair of ever shaking them off which is only too well grounded in the experience of the past, is the beginning of salvation for each of us. That great keyword of the New Testament covers the whole field of positive and negative good which man can need or God can give. Negatively it includes the removal of every evil, whether of the nature of sorrow or of sin, under which men can groan. Positively it includes the endowment with all good, whether of the nature of joy or of purity, which men can hope for or receive. It is past, present, and future, for every heart that accepts ‘the word of the truth of the gospel’-past, inasmuch as the first effect of even the most incomplete acceptance is to put us in a new position and attitude towards the law of God, and to plant the germs of all holiness and joy in our souls; present, inasmuch as salvation is a growing possession and a continuous process running on all through our lives, if we be true to ourselves and our calling; future, inasmuch as its completion waits to be unveiled in another order of things, where perfect purity and perfect consecration shall issue in perfect joy. And all this ennobling and enriching of human nature is produced by that good news about the grace and glory of God and of Christ, if we will only listen to it, and let it work its work on our souls.

Substantially the same set of facts is included under that other expression, ‘the gospel of peace.’ The Hebrew use of the word ‘peace’ as a kind of shorthand for all good is probably to be remembered. But even in the narrower sense of the word, how great are the blessings set forth by it! All inward serenity and outward calm, the tranquillity of a soul free from the agitations of emotion and the storms of passions and the tumults of desire, as well as the security of a life guarded from the assaults of foes and girded about with an impregnable barrier which nothing can destroy and no enemy overleap, are ours, if we take the good news about God to our heart. They are ours in the measure in which we take it. Clearly such truths as those which the gospel brings have a plain tendency to give peace. They give peace with God, with the world, and with ourselves. They lead to trust, and trust is peace. They lead to union with God, and that is peace. They lead to submission, and that is peace. They lead to consecration, and that is peace. They lead to indifference to fleeting joys and treasures, and that is peace. They give to heart and mind and will an all-sufficient and infinite object, and that is peace. They deliver us from ourselves, and that is peace. They fill the past, the present, and the future with the loving Father’s presence, and brighten life and death with the Saviour’s footsteps-and so to live is calm, and to die is to lay ourselves down in peace and sleep, quiet by His side, like a child by its mother. The good news about God and Christ is the good news of our salvation and of our peace.

IV. The good news about Christ and God is the gospel.

By far the most frequent form in which the word gospel occurs is that of the simple use of the noun with the definite article. This message is emphatically the good news. It is the tidings which men most of all want. It stands alone; there is no other like it. If this be not the glad tidings of great joy for the world, then there are none.

Let no false liberality lead us to lose sight of the exclusive claims which are made in this phrase for the set of facts the narrative of which constitutes ‘the gospel.’ The life and death of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world, His resurrection and continuous life for the saving of the world-these are the truths, without which there can be no gospel. They may be apprehended in different ways, set forth in different perspective, proclaimed in different dialects, explained in different fashion, associated with different accompaniments, drawn out into different consequences, and yet, through all diversity of tones, the message may be one. Sounded on a ram’s horn or a silver trumpet, it may be the same saving and joy-bringing proclamation, and it will be, if Christ and His life and death are plainly set forth as the beginning and ending of all. But if there be an omission of that mighty name, or if a Christ be proclaimed without a Cross, a salvation without a Saviour, or a Saviour without a Sacrifice, all the adornments of genius and sincerity will not prevent such a half gospel from falling flat. Its preachers have never been able, and never will be able, to touch the general heart or to bring good cheer to men. They have always had to complain, ‘We have piped unto you and ye have not danced.’ They cannot get people to be glad over such a message. Only when you speak of a Christ who has died for our sins, will you cause the heavy heart of the world to sing for joy. Only that old, old message is the good news which men want.

There is no second gospel. Men who preach a message of a different kind, as Paul tells us, are preaching what is not really another gospel. There cannot be two messages. There is but one genuine; all others are counterfeits. For us it is all-important that we should be no less narrow than the truth, and no more liberal than he was to whom the message ‘how that Jesus died for our sins’ was the only thing worth calling the gospel. Our own salvation depends on our firm grasp of that one message, and for some of us, the clear decisiveness with which our lips ring it out determines whether we shall be blessings or curses to our generation. There is a Babel of voices now preaching other messages which promise good tidings of good. Let us cleave with all our hearts to Christ alone, and let our tongues not falter in proclaiming, ‘Neither is there salvation in any other.’ The gospel of the Christ who died for our sins, is the gospel.

And what we have for ourselves to do with it is told us in that pregnant phrase of the apostle’s, ‘my gospel,’ and ‘our gospel’; meaning not merely the message which he was charged to proclaim, but the good news which he and his brethren had made their own. So we have to make it ours. It is of no use to us, unless we do. It is not enough that it echoes all around us, like music borne upon the wind. It is not enough that we hear it, as men do some sweet melody, while their thoughts are busy on other things. It is not enough that we believe it, as we do other histories in which we have no concern. What more is needed? Another expression of the apostle’s gives the answer. He speaks of ‘the faith of the gospel,’ that is the trust which that glad message evokes, and by which it is laid hold of.

Make it yours by trusting your whole self to the Christ of whom it tells you. The reliance of heart and will on Jesus who has died for me, makes it ‘my gospel.’ There is one God, one Christ, one gospel which tells us of them, and one faith by which we lay hold upon the gospel, and upon the loving Father and the ever-helpful Saviour of whom it tells. Let us make that great word our own by simple faith, and then ‘as cold water to our thirsty soul,’ so will be that ‘good news from a far country,’ the country where the Father’s house is, and to which He has sent the Elder Brother to bring back us prodigal children.


Verses 2-11

Mark

THE STRONG FORERUNNER AND THE STRONGER SON

Mark 1:1 - Mark 1:11.

The first words of In Memoriam might be taken to describe the theme of Mark’s Gospel. It is the ‘strong Son of God’ whom he sets forth in his rapid, impetuous narrative, which is full of fiery energy, and delights to paint the unresting continuity of Christ’s filial service. His theme is not the King, as in Matthew; nor the Son of Man, as in Luke; nor the eternal Word manifested in flesh, as in John. Therefore he neither begins by tracing His kingly lineage, as does the first evangelist; nor by dwelling on the humanities of wedded life and the sacredness of the family since He has been born; nor by soaring to the abysses of the eternal abiding of the Word with God, as the agent of creation, the medium of life and light; but plunges at once into his subject, and begins the Gospel with the mission of the Forerunner, which melts immediately into the appearance of the Son.

I. We may note first, in this passage, the prelude, including Mark 1:1 - Mark 1:3.

We need not discuss the grammatical connection of these verses, nor the relation of Mark 1:2 - Mark 1:3 to the following section. However that be settled, the result, for our present purpose, is the same. Mark considers that John’s mission is the beginning of the gospel. Here are two noteworthy points,-his use of that well-worn word, ‘the gospel,’ and his view of John’s place in relation to it. The gospel is the narrative of the facts of Christ’s life and death. Later usage has taken it to be, rather, the statement of the truths deducible from these facts, and especially the proclamation of salvation by the power of Christ’s atoning death; but the primitive application of the word is to the history itself. So Paul uses it in his formal statement of the gospel which he preached, with the addition, indeed, of the explanation of the meaning of Christ’s death [1 Corinthians 15:1 - 1 Corinthians 15:6]. The very name ‘good news’ necessarily implies that the gospel is, primarily, history; but we cannot exclude from the meaning of the word the statement of the significance of the facts, without which the facts have no message of blessing. Mark adds the dogmatic element when he defines the subject of the Gospel as being ‘Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ In the remainder of the book the simple name ‘Jesus’ is used; but here, in starting, the full, solemn title is given, which unites the contemplation of Him in His manhood, in His office as fulfiller of prophecy and crown of revelation, and in His mysterious, divine nature.

Whether we regard Mark 1:2 - Mark 1:3 as connected grammatically with the preceding or the following verses, they equally refer to John, and define his position in relation to the Gospel. The Revised Version restores the true reading, ‘in Isaiah the prophet,’ which some unwise and timid transcriber has, as he thought, mended into ‘the prophets,’ for fear that an error should be found in Scripture. Of course, Mark 1:2 is not Isaiah’s, but Malachi’s; but Mark 1:3, which is Isaiah’s, was uppermost in Mark’s mind, and his quotation of Malachi is, apparently, an afterthought, and is plainly merely introductory of the other, on which the stress lies. The remarkable variation in the Malachi quotation, which occurs in all three Evangelists, shows how completely they recognised the divinity of our Lord, in their making words which, in the original, are addressed by Jehovah to Himself, to be addressed by the Father to the Son. There is a difference in the representation of the office of the forerunner in the two prophetic passages. In the former ‘he’ prepares the way of the coming Lord; in the latter he calls upon his hearers to prepare it. In fact, John prepared the way, as we shall see presently, just by calling on men to do so. In Mark’s view, the first stage in the gospel is the mission of John. He might have gone further back-to the work of prophets of old, or to the earliest beginnings in time of the self-revelation of God, as the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews does; or he might have ascended even higher up the stream-to the true ‘beginning,’ from which the fourth Evangelist starts. But his distinctly practical genius leads him to fix his gaze on the historical fact of John’s mission, and to claim for it a unique position, which he proceeds to develop.

II. So we have, next, the strong servant and fore runner {Mark 1:4 - Mark 1:8}.

The abruptness with which the curtain is drawn, and the gaunt figure of the desert-loving ascetic shown us, is very striking. It is like the way in which Elijah, his prototype, leaps, as it were, full-armed, into the arena. The parallel passage in Matthew links his appearance with the events which it has been narrating by the phrase ‘in these days,’ and calls him ‘the Baptist.’ Mark has no such words, but lets him stand forth in his isolation. The two accounts may profitably be compared. Their likenesses suggest that they rest on a common basis, probably of oral tradition, while their differences are, for the most part, significant. Mark differs in his arrangement of the common matter, in omissions, and in some variations of expression. Each account gives a general summary of John’s teaching at the beginning; but Matthew puts emphasis on the Baptist’s proclamation that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, to which nothing in Mark corresponds. His Gospel does not dwell on the royalty of Jesus, but rather represents Him as the Servant than as the King. Mark begins with describing John as baptizing, which only appears later in Matthew’s account. Mark omits all reference to the Sadducees and Pharisees, and to John’s sharp words to them. He has nothing about the axe laid to the trees, nothing about the children of Abraham, nothing about the fan in the hand of the great Husbandman. All the theocratic aspect of the Messiah, as proclaimed by John, is absent; and, as there is no reference to the fire which destroys, so neither is there to the fire of the Holy Ghost, in which He baptizes. Mark reports only John’s preaching and baptism of repentance, and his testimony to Christ as stronger than he, and as baptizing with the Holy Ghost.

So, on the whole, Mark’s picture brings out prominently the following traits in John’s personality and mission:-First, his preparation for Christ by preaching repentance. The truest way to create in men a longing for Jesus, and to lead to a true apprehension of His unique gift to mankind, is to evoke the penitent consciousness of sin. The preacher of guilt and repentance is the herald of the bringer of pardon and purity. That is true in reference to the relation of Judaism and Christianity, of John and Jesus, and is as true to-day as ever it was. The root of maimed conceptions of the work and nature of Jesus Christ is a defective sense of sin. When men are roused to believe in judgment, and to realise their own evil, they are ready to listen to the blessed news of a Saviour from sin and its curse. The Christ whom John heralds is the Christ that men need; the Christ whom men receive, without having been out in the wilderness with the stern preacher of sin and judgment, is but half a Christ-and it is the vital half that is missing.

Again, Mark brings out John’s personal asceticism. He omits much; but he could not leave out the picture of the grim, lean solitary, who stalked among soft-robed men, like Elijah come to life again, and held the crowds by his self-chosen privations no less than by his fierce, fiery eloquence. His desert life and contempt for ease and luxury spoke of a strength of character and purpose which fascinated commoner men, and make the next point the more striking-namely, the utter humility with which this strong, self-reliant, fiery rebuker of sin, and despiser of rank and official dignities, flings himself at the feet of the coming One. He is strong, as his life and the awestruck crowds testified; how strong must that Other be! He feared not the face of man, nor owned inferiority to any; but his whole soul melted into joyful submission, and confessed unworthiness even to unlace the sandals of that mightier One. His transitional position is also plainly marked by our Evangelist. He is the end of prophecy, the beginning of the Gospel, belonging to neither and to both. He is not merely a prophet, for he is prophesied of as well; and he stands so near Him whom he foretells, that his prediction is almost fact. He is not an Evangelist, nor, in the closest sense, a servant of the coming Christ; for his lowly confession of unworthiness does not imply merely his humility, but accurately defines the limits of his function. It was not for him to bear or to loose that Lord’s sandals. There were those who did minister to Him, and the least of those, whose message to the world was ‘Christ has come,’ had the honour of closer service than that greatest among women-born, whose task was to run before the chariot of the King and tell that He was at hand.

III. We have the gentle figure of the stronger Son.

The introduction of Jesus is somewhat less abrupt than that of John; but if we remember whom Mark believed Him to be, the quiet words which tell of His first appearance are sufficiently remarkable. There is no mention of His birth or previous years. His deeds will tell who He is. The years before His baptism were of no moment for Mark’s purpose. Nor has he any report of the precious conversation of Jesus with John, when the forerunner testified to Christ’s purity, which needed no washing nor repentance, and acknowledged at once his own sinfulness and the Lord’s cleansing power, and when Christ accepted the homage, and, by implication, claimed the character, purity, and power which John attributed to Him. The omission may be accounted for on a principle which seems to run through all this Gospel-of touching lightly or omitting indications of our Lord’s dignity, and dwelling by preference on His acts of lowliness and service. The baptism is recorded; but the conversation, which showed that the King of Israel, in submitting to it, acknowledged no need of it for Himself, but regarded it as ‘fulfilling righteousness’ is passed by. The sinlessness of Jesus, and the special meaning of His baptism, are sufficiently shown by the descending Spirit and the approving voice. These Mark does record; for they warrant the great name by which, in his first verse, he has described Jesus as ‘the Son of God.’

The brief account of these is marked by the Evangelist’s vivid pictorial faculty, which we shall frequently have to notice as we read his Gospel. Here he puts us, by a word, in the position of eye-witnesses of the scene as it is passing, when he describes the heavens as ‘being rent asunder’-a much more forcible and pictorial word than Matthew’s ‘opened.’ He says nothing of John’s share in the vision. All is intended for the Son. It is Jesus who sees the rending heavens and the descending dove. The voice which Matthew represents as speaking of Christ, Mark represents as speaking to Him.

The baptism of Jesus, then, was an epoch in His own consciousness. It was not merely His designation to John or to others as Messiah, but for Himself the sense of Sonship and the sunlight of divine complacency filled His spirit in new measure or manner. Speaking as we have to do from the outside, and knowing but dimly the mysteries of His unique personality, we have to speak modestly and little. But we know that our Lord grew, as to His manhood, in wisdom, and that His manhood was continually the receiver, from the Father, of the Spirit; and the reality of His divinity, as dwelling in His manhood from the beginning of that manhood, is not affected by the belief that when the dovelike Spirit floated down on His meek head, glistening with the water of baptism, His manhood then received a new and special consciousness of His Messianic office and of His Sonship.

Whilst that voice was for His sake, it was for others too; for John himself tells us [John 1:29] that the sign had been told him beforehand, and that it was his sight of the descending dove which heightened his thoughts and gave a new turn to his testimony, leading him to know and to show ‘that this is the Son of God.’ The rent heavens have long since closed, and that dread voice is silent; but the fact of that attestation remains on record, that we, too, may hear through the centuries God speaking of and to His Son, and may lay to heart the commandment to us, which naturally follows God’s witness to Jesus, ‘Hear ye Him.’

The symbol of the dove may be regarded as a prophecy of the gentleness of the Son. Thus early in His course the two qualities were harmonised in Him, which so seldom are united, and each of which dwelt in Him in divinest perfection, both as to degree and manner. John’s anticipations of the strong coming One looked for the manifestations of His strength in judgment and destruction. How strangely his images of the axe, the fan, the fire, are contrasted with the reality, emblemed by this dove dropping from heaven, with sunshine on its breast and peace in its still wings! Through the ages, Christ’s strength has been the strength of gentleness, and His coming has been like that of Noah’s dove, with the olive-branch in its beak, and the tidings of an abated flood and of a safe home in its return. The ascetic preacher of repentance was strong to shake and purge men’s hearts by terror; but the stronger Son comes to conquer by meekness, and reign by the omnipotence of love. The beginning of the gospel was the anticipation and the proclamation of strength like the eagle’s, swift of flight, and powerful to strike and destroy. The gospel, when it became a fact, and not a hope, was found in the meek Jesus, with the dove of God, the gentle Spirit, which is mightier than all, nestling in His heart, and uttering soft notes of invitation through His lips.


Verses 21-29

Mark

MIGHTY IN WORD AND DEED

Mark 1:21 - Mark 1:34.

None of the incidents in this section are peculiar to Mark, but the special stamp of his Gospel is on them all; and, both in the narration of each and in the swift transition from one to another, the impression of Christ’s strength and unpausing diligence in filial service is made. The short hours of that first Sabbath’s ministry are crowded with work; and Christ’s energy bears Him through exhausting physical labours, and enables Him to turn with unwearied sympathy and marvellous celerity to each new form of misery, and to throw Himself with freshness undiminished into the relief of each. The homely virtue of diligence shines out in this lesson no less clearly than superhuman strength that tames demons and heals all manner of sickness. There are four pictures here, compressed and yet vivid. Mark can condense and keep all the essentials, for his keen eye and sure hand go straight to the heart of his incidents.

I. The strong Son of God teaching with authority.

‘They enter; we see the little group, consisting of Jesus and of the two pairs of brothers, in whose hearts the mighty conviction of His Messiahship had taken root. Simon and Andrew were at home in Capernaum; but we may, perhaps, infer from the manner in which the sickness of Peter’s wife’s mother is mentioned, that Peter had not been to his house till after the synagogue service. At all events, these four were already detached from ordinary life and bound to Him as disciples. We meet here with our first instance of Mark’s favourite ‘straightway,’ the recurrence of which, in this chapter, so powerfully helps the impression of eager and yet careful swiftness with which Christ ran His course, ‘unhasting, unresting.’ From the beginning Mark stamps his story with the spirit of our Lord’s own words, ‘I must work the works of Him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh.’ And yet there is no hurry, but the calm, equable rapidity with which planets move. The unostentatious manner of Christ’s beginning is noteworthy. He seeks to set Himself in the line of the ordinary teaching of the day. He knew all the faults of the synagogue and the rabbis, and He had come to revolutionise the very conception of religious teaching and worship; but He prefers to intertwine the new with the old, and to make as little disturbance as possible. It is easy to get the cheap praise of ‘originality’ by brushing aside existing methods. It is harder and nobler to use whatever methods may be going, and to breathe new value and life into them. Drowsy, hair-splitting disputations about nothings and endless casuistry were the staple of the synagogue talk; but when He opened His mouth there, the weary formalism went out of the service, and men’s hearts glowed again when they once more heard a Voice that lived, speaking from a Soul that saw the invisible. Mark has no mission to record many of our Lord’s sayings. His Gospel deals more with deeds. The sermon he does not give, but the hearer’s comment he does. Matthew has the same words at the close of the Sermon on the Mount, from which it would seem that they were part of the oral tradition which underlies the written Gospels; but Mark probably has them in their right place. Very naturally, the first synagogue discourse in Capernaum would surprise. Deeper impressions might be made by its successors, but the first hearing of that voice would be an experience that could never be repeated.

The feature of His teaching which astonished the villagers most was its ‘authority.’ That fits in with the impression of strength which Mark wishes to make. Another thing that struck them was its unlikeness to the type of synagogue teaching to which they had been accustomed all their lives. They had got so accustomed to the droning dreariness and trivial subtleties of the rabbis, that it had never entered their heads that there could be any other way of teaching religion than boring men with interminable pedantries about trifles of ritual or outward obedience. This new Teacher would startle all, as an eagle suddenly appearing in a sanhedrim of owls. He would shock many; He would fascinate a few. Nor was it only the dissimilarity of His teaching, but also its authority, that was strange. The scribes spoke with authority enough of a sort, lording it over the despised common people-’men of the earth,’ as they called them-and exacting punctilious obedience and much obsequiousness; but authority over the spirit they had none. They pretended to no power but as expositors of a law; and they fortified themselves by citations of what this, that, and the other rabbi had said, which was all their learning. Christ quoted no one. He did not even say, ‘Moses has said.’ He did not even preface His commands with a ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ He spoke of His own authority: ‘Verily, I say unto you.’ Other teachers explained the law; He is a lawgiver. Others drew more or less pure waters from cisterns; He is in Himself a well of water, from which all may draw. To us, as to these rude villagers in the synagogue of the little fishing-town, Christ’s teaching is unique in this respect. He does not argue; He affirms. He seeks no support from others’ teachings; He alone is sufficient for us. He not only speaks the truth, which needs no other confirmation than His own lips, but He is the truth. We may canvass other men’s teachings, and distinguish their insight from their errors; we have but to accept His. The world outgrows all others; it can only grow up towards the fulness of His. Us and all the ages He teaches with authority, and the guarantee for the truth of His teaching is Himself. ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you.’ No other man has a right to say that to me. But Christ dominates the race, and the strong Son of God is the world’s Teacher.

II. The strong conqueror of demons.

Again we have ‘straightway.’ The language seems to imply that this wretched sufferer burst hurriedly into the synagogue and interrupted the utterance of astonishment by giving it new food. Perhaps the double consciousness of the demoniac may be recognised, the humanity being drawn to Jesus by some disturbed longings, the demoniac consciousness, on the other hand, being repelled. It is no part of my purpose to discuss demoniacal possession. I content myself with remarking that I, for one, do not see how Christ’s credit as a divine Teacher is to be saved without admitting its reality, nor how such phenomena as the demoniac’s knowledge of His nature are to be accounted for on the hypothesis of disease or insanity. It is assuming rather too encyclopædical a knowledge to allege the impossibility of such possession. There are facts enough around us still, which would be at least as satisfactorily accounted for by it as by natural causes; but as to the incident before us, Mark puts it all into three sentences, each of which is pregnant with suggestions. There is, first, the demoniac’s shriek of hatred and despair. Christ had said nothing. If, as we suppose, the man had broken in on the worship, drawn to Jesus, he is no sooner in His presence than the other power that darkly lodged in him overpowers him, and pours out fierce passions from his reluctant lips. There is dreadful meaning in the preposition here used, ‘a man in an unclean spirit,’ as if his human self was immersed in that filthy flood. The words embody three thoughts-the fierce hatred, which disowns all connection with Jesus; the wild terror, which asks or affirms Christ’s destructive might over all foul spirits {for the ‘us’ means not the man and the demon, but the demon and his fellows}; and the recognition of Christ’s holiness, which lashes unholiness into a paroxysm of mingled despair and hate. Does this sound like a madman, or an epileptic, or like a spirit which knew more than men knew, and trembled and hated more than they could do? There is nothing more terrible than the picture, self-drawn in these spasmodic words, of a spirit which, by its very foulness, is made shudderingly sensitive to the disturbing presence of purity, and would fain have nothing to do with Him whom it recognises for the Holy One of God, and therefore its destroyer. Foul things that lurk under stones hurry out of the light when you lift the covering. Spirits that love the darkness are hurt by the light. It is possible to recognise Jesus for what He is, and to hate Him all the more. What a miserable state that is, to hope that we shall have nothing to do with Him! These wild utterances, seething with evil passions and fierce detestation, do point to the possible terminus for men. A black gulf opens in them, from which we are meant to start back with the prayer, ‘Preserve me from going down into that pit!’

What a contrast to the tempest of the demoniac’s wild and whirling words is the calm speech of Christ! He knows His authority, and His word is imperative, curt, and assured: ‘Hold thy peace!’ literally, ‘Be muzzled,’ as if the creature were a dangerous beast, whose raving and snapping must be stopped. Jesus wishes no acknowledgments from such lips. They who bear the vessels of the Lord must be clean. He had taught with authority, and now He in like manner commands. His teaching rested on His own assurance. His miracle is done by His own power. That power is put forth by His simple word; that is to say, the bare exercise or expression of His will is potent.

The third step in the narrative is the immediate obedience of the demon. Reluctant but compelled, malicious to the last, doing the house which he has to leave all the harm he can, and though no longer venturing to speak, yet venting his rage and mortification, and acknowledging his defeat by one parting howl, he comes out.

Again, we are bid to note the impression produced. The interrupted buzz of talk begins once more, and is vividly reported by the fragmentary sentences of Mark 1:27, and by the remark that it was ‘among themselves’ that they compared notes. Two things startled the people:-first, the ‘new teaching’; and second, the authority over demons, into which they naturally generalise the one instance. The busy tongues were not silenced when they left the synagogue. Mark 1:28 shows what happened, in one direction, when the meeting broke up. With another ‘straightway,’ Mark paints the swift flight of the rumour over all the district, and somewhat overleaps the strict line of chronology, to let us hear how far the echo of such a blow sounded. This first miracle recorded by him is as a duel between Christ and the ‘strong man armed,’ who ‘keeps his house.’ The shield of the great oppressor is first struck in challenge by the champion, and His first essay at arms proves Him mightiest. Such a victory well heads the chronicle.

III. The tenderness of the strong Son.

We come back to the strict order of succession with another ‘straightway,’ which opens a very different scene. The Authorised Version gives three ‘straightways’ in the three verses as to the cure of Peter’s mother-in-law. ‘Immediately’ they go to the house; ‘immediately’ they tell Jesus of her; ‘immediately’ the fever leaves her; and even if we omit the third of these, as the Revised Version does, we cannot miss the rapid haste of the narrative, which reflects the unwearied energy of the Master. Peter and Andrew had apparently been ignorant of the sickness till they reached the house, from which the inference is not that it was a slight attack which had come on after they went to the synagogue, but that the two disciples had so really left house and kindred, that though in Capernaum, they had not gone home till they took Jesus there for rest and quiet and food after the toil of the morning. The owners would naturally first know of the sickness, which would interfere with their hospitable purpose; and so Mark’s account seems more near the details than Matthew’s, inasmuch as the former says that Jesus was ‘told’ of the sick woman, while Matthew’s version is that He ‘saw’ her. Luke says that they ‘besought Him for her.’ No doubt that was the meaning of ‘telling’ Him; but Mark’s representation brings out very beautifully the confidence already beginning to spring in their hearts that He needed but to know in order to heal, and the reverence which hindered them from direct asking. The instinct of the devout heart is to tell Christ all its troubles, great or small; and He does not need beseeching before He answers. He did not need to be told either, but He would not rob them or us of the solace of confiding all griefs to Him.

Their confidence was not misplaced. No moment intervened unused between the tidings and the cure. ‘He came,’ as if He had been in some outer room, or not yet in the house, and now passed into the sick chamber. Then comes one of Mark’s minute and graphic details, in which we may see the keen eye and faithful memory of Peter. He ‘took her by the hand, and lifted her up.’ Mark is fond of telling of Christ’s taking by the hand; as, for instance, the little child whom He set in the midst, the blind man whom He healed, the child with the dumb spirit. His touch has power. His grasp means sympathy, tenderness, identification of Himself with us, the communication of upholding, restoring strength. It is a picture, in a small matter, of the very heart of the gospel. ‘He layeth not hold of angels, but He layeth hold of the seed of Abraham.’ It is a lesson for all who would help their fellows, that they must not be too dainty to lay hold of the dirtiest hand, both metaphorically and literally, if they want their sympathy to be believed. His hand banishes not only the disease, but its consequences. Immediate convalescence and restoration to strength follow; and the strength is used, as it should be, in ministering to the Healer who, notwithstanding His power, needed the humble ministration and the poor fare of the fisherman’s hut. What a lesson for all Christian homes is here! Let Jesus know all that troubles them, welcome Him as a guest, tell Him everything, and He will cure all diseases and sorrows, or give the light of His presence to make them endurable. Consecrate to Him the strength which He gives, and let deliverances teach trust, and inflame grateful love, which delights in serving Him who needs no service, but delights in all.

IV. The strong Son, unwearied by toil and sufficient for all the needy.

Each incident in this lesson has a note appended of the impression it made. Mark 1:32 - Mark 1:34 give the united result of all, on the people of Capernaum. They wait till the Sabbath is past, and then, without thought of His long day of work, crowd round the house with their sick. The sinking sun brought no rest for Him, but the new calls found Him neither exhausted nor unwilling. Capernaum was but a little place, and the whole city might well be ‘gathered together at the door,’ some sick, some bearing the sick, all curious and eager. There was no depth in the excitement. There was earnestness enough, no doubt, in the wish for healing, but there was no insight into His message. Any travelling European with a medicine chest can get the same kind of cortege round his tent. These people, who hung upon Him thus, were those of whom He had afterwards to say that it would be ‘more tolerable for Sodom, in the day of judgment, than for them.’ But though He knew the shallowness of the impression, He was not deaf to the misery; and, with power which knew no weariness, and sympathy which had no limit, and a reservoir of healing virtue which the day’s draughts had not emptied by a hairs-breadth, He healed them all. Remarkable is the prohibition of the demons’ speech, They knew Him, while men were ignorant; for they had met Him before to-day. He would have no witness from them; not merely, as has been said, because their attestation would hinder, rather than further, His acceptance by the people, nor because they may be supposed to have spoken in malice, but because a divine decorum forbade that He should accept acknowledgments from such tainted sources.

So ended this first of ‘the days of the Son of Man,’ which our Evangelist records. It was a day of hard toil, of merciful and manifold self-revelation. As teacher and doer, in the synagogue, and in the home, and in the city; as Lord of the dark realms of evil and of disease; as ready to hear hinted and dumb prayers, and able to answer them all; as careless of His own ease, and ready to spend Himself for others’ help,-Jesus showed Himself, on that Sabbath day, strong and tender, the Son of God and the servant of men.


Verse 30-31

Mark

MIGHTY IN WORD AND DEED

HEALING AND SERVICE

Mark 1:30 - Mark 1:31

This miracle is told us by three of the four Evangelists, and the comparison of their brief narratives is very interesting and instructive. We all know, I suppose, that the common tradition is that Mark was, in some sense, Peter’s mouthpiece in this Gospel. The truthfulness of that ancient statement is borne out by little morsels of evidence that crop up here and there throughout the Gospel. There is one of them in this context. The other two Evangelists tell us that our Lord, with His four attendant disciples, ‘entered into the house of Simon’; Mark knows that Simon’s brother Andrew shared the house with him. Who was likely to have told him such an insignificant thing as that? We seem to hear the Apostle himself recounting the whole story to his amanuensis.

Then, further, Mark’s narrative is distinguished from that of the other two Evangelists in very minute and yet interesting points, which will come out as we go along. So I think we may fairly say that we have here Peter himself telling us the story of his mother-in-law’s cure. Now, one thing that strikes one is that this is a very small miracle. It is by no means-if we can apply the words ‘great’ and ‘small’ to these miraculous events-one of the more striking and significant. Another point to note is that it was done evidently without the slightest intention of vindicating Christ’s mission, or of preaching any truth whatever, and so it starts up into a new beauty as being simply and solely a manifestation of His love. I think, when some people are so busy in denying, and others in proving, the miraculous element in Scripture, and others in drawing doctrinal or symbolical lessons out of it, that there is great need to emphasise this, that the first thing about all Christ’s miracles, and most conspicuously about this one, is that they were the welling out of His loving heart which responded to the sight of human sorrow-I was going to say instinctively; but I will find a better word, and say divinely. The deed that had no purpose whatsoever except to lighten the burden upon a disciple’s heart, and to heal the passing physical trouble of one poor old woman, is great, just because it is small; and full of teaching because, to the superficial eye, it teaches nothing.

The first thing in the story is, as it seems to me-

I. The disciple’s intercession.

I wonder if Peter knew that his wife’s mother was ill, when he said to Jesus Christ, after that exciting morning in the synagogue, ‘Come home, and rest in our house’? Probably not. One can scarcely imagine hospitality proffered under such circumstances, or with a knowledge of them. And if we look a little more closely into the preceding narrative we shall see that it is at least possible that Peter and his brother had been away from home for some time; so that the old woman might easily have fallen ill during their temporary absence. But be that as it may, they expect to find rest and food, and they find a sick woman.

There must have been at least two rooms in the humble house, because they ‘come to Jesus Christ and tell Him of her.’ Now if we turn to the other Evangelists, we shall find that Matthew says nothing about any message being communicated to Jesus, but brings Him at once, as It were, to the side of the sick-bed. That is evidently an incomplete account. And then we find in Luke’s Gospel that, instead of the simple ‘tell Him of her’ of Mark, he intensifies the telling into ‘they besought Him for her.’ Now, I think that Mark’s is plainly the more precise story, because he lets us see that Jesus Christ did not commit such a breach of courtesy, due to the humblest home, as to go to the woman’s bedside without being summoned, and he also lets us see that the ‘beseeching’ was a simple intimation to Him. They did not ask; they tell Him; being, perhaps, restrained from definite petitioning partly by reverence, and partly, no doubt, by hesitation in these early days of their discipleship-for this incident occurred at the very beginning, when all the subsequent manifestations of His character were yet waiting to be flashed upon them-as to whether it might be in accordance with their new Teacher’s very little known disposition and mind to help. They knew that He could, because He had just healed a demoniac in the synagogue, but one can understand how, at the beginning of their discipleship, there was a little faltering of confidence as to whether they should go so far as to ask Him to do such a thing. So they ‘tell Him of her,’ and do you not think that the tone of petition vibrated in the intimation, and that there looked out of the eyes of the impulsive, warm-hearted Peter, an unspoken prayer? So Luke was perfectly right in his interpretation of the incident, though not precise in his statement of the external fact, when, instead of saying ‘they tell Him of her,’ he translated that telling into what it meant, and put it, ‘they besought Him for her.’

Ah! dear brethren, there are a great many things in our lives which, though we ought to know Jesus Christ better than the first disciples at first did, scarcely seem to us fit to be turned into subjects of petition, partly because we have wrong notions as to the sphere and limits of prayer, and partly because they seem to be such transitory things that it is a shame to trouble Him about such insignificant matters. Well, go and tell Him, at any rate. I do not think that Christians ought to have anything in their heads or hearts that they do not take to Jesus Christ, and it is an uncommonly good test-and one very easily applied-of our hopes, fears, purposes, thoughts, deeds, and desires-’Should I like to go and make a clean breast of it to the Master?’

‘They tell Him of her,’ and that meant petition, and Jesus Christ can interpret an unspoken petition, and an unexpressed desire appeals to His sympathetic heart. Although the words be but ‘O Lord! I am troubled, perplexed; and I do not know what to do,’ He translates them into ‘Calm Thou me; enlighten Thou me; guide Thou me’; and be sure of this, that as in the story before us, so in our lives, He will answer the unspoken petition in so far as may be best for us.

The next thing to note in this incident is-

II. The Healers method.

There, again, the three stories diverge, and yet are all one. Matthew says, ‘He touched her’; Luke says, ‘He stood’-or rather, as the Greek means, ‘He bent over her-and rebuked the fever.’ Perhaps Peter was close to the pallet, and saw and remembered that there were not a standing over and rebuking the fever only, but that there was the going out of His tender sympathy to the sufferer, and that if there were stern words as of indignation and authority addressed to the disease as if to an unlawful intruder, there were also compassion and tenderness for the victim. For Mark tells that it was not a touch only, but that ‘He took her by the hand and lifted her up,’ and the grasp banished sickness and brought strength.

Now the most precious of the lessons that we can gather from the variety of Christ’s methods of healing is this: that all methods which He used were in themselves equally powerless, and that the curative virtue was in neither the word nor the touch, nor the spittle, nor the clay, nor the bathing in the pool of Siloam, but was purely and simply in the outgoing of His will. The reasons for the wonderful variety of ways in which He communicated His healing power are to be sought partly in the respective moral, and spiritual, and intellectual condition of the people to be healed, and partly in wider reasons and considerations. Why did He stoop and touch the woman, and take her by the hand and gently lift her up? Because His heart went out to her, because He felt the emotion and sympathy which makes the whole world kin, and because His heart was a heart of love, and bade Him come into close contact with the poor fever-ridden woman. Unless we regard that hand-clasp as being such an instinctive attitude and action of Christ’s sympathetic love, we lose the deepest significance of it. And then, when we have given full weight to that, the simplest and yet the most blessed of all the thoughts that cluster round the deed, we can venture further to say that in that small matter we see mirrored, as a wide sweep of country in a tiny mirror, or the sun in a bowl of water, the great truth: ‘He took not hold of angels, but He took hold of the seed of Abraham, wherefore it behoved Him to be made in all things like unto His brethren.’ The touch upon the fevered hand of that old woman in Capernaum was as a condensation into one act of the very principle of the Incarnation and of the whole power which Christ exercises upon a fevered and sick world. For it is by His touch, by His lifting hand, by His sympathetic grasp, and by our real contact with Him, that all our sicknesses are banished, and health and strength come to our souls.

So let us learn a lesson for our own guidance. We can do no man any real good unless we make ourselves one with him, and benefits that we bestow will hurt rather than help, if they are flung down upon men as from a height, or as people cast a bone to a dog. The heart must go with them; and identification with the sufferer is a condition of succour. If we would take lepers and blind beggars and poor old women by the hand-I mean, of course, by giving them our sympathy along with our help-we should see larger results from, and be more Christ-like in, our deeds of beneficence.

The last point is-

III. The healed sufferer’s service.

‘She arose’-yes, of course she did, when Christ grasped her. How could she help it? ‘And she ministered to them,’-how could she help that either, if she had any thankfulness in her heart? What a lovely, glad, awe-stricken meal that would be, to which they all sat down in Simon’s house, on that Sabbath night, as the sun was setting! It was a humble household. There were no servants in it. The convalescent old woman had to do all the ministering herself, and that she was able to do it was, of course, as everybody remarks on reading the narrative, the sign of the completeness of the cure. But it was a great deal more than that. How could she sit still and not minister to Him who had done so much for her? And if you and I, dear friends, have any living apprehension of Christ’s healing power, and understand and respond at all to ‘that for which we have been laid hold of’ by Him, our thankfulness will take the same shape, and we, too, shall become His servants. Up yonder, amidst the blaze of the glory, He is still capable of being ministered to by us. The woman who did so on earth had no monopoly of this sacred office, but it continues still. And every housewife, as she goes about her duties, and every domestic servant, as she moves round her mistress’s dinner-table, and all of us, in our secular avocations, as people call them, may indeed serve Christ, if only we have regard to Him in the doing of them. There is also a yet higher sense in which that ministration, incumbent upon all the healed, and spontaneous on their part if they have truly been recipients of the healing grace, is still possible for us. ‘When saw we Thee. . . in need. . . and served Thee?’ ‘Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye did it unto Me.’


Verses 32-34

Mark

MIGHTY IN WORD AND DEED

Mark 1:21 - Mark 1:34.

None of the incidents in this section are peculiar to Mark, but the special stamp of his Gospel is on them all; and, both in the narration of each and in the swift transition from one to another, the impression of Christ’s strength and unpausing diligence in filial service is made. The short hours of that first Sabbath’s ministry are crowded with work; and Christ’s energy bears Him through exhausting physical labours, and enables Him to turn with unwearied sympathy and marvellous celerity to each new form of misery, and to throw Himself with freshness undiminished into the relief of each. The homely virtue of diligence shines out in this lesson no less clearly than superhuman strength that tames demons and heals all manner of sickness. There are four pictures here, compressed and yet vivid. Mark can condense and keep all the essentials, for his keen eye and sure hand go straight to the heart of his incidents.

I. The strong Son of God teaching with authority.

‘They enter; we see the little group, consisting of Jesus and of the two pairs of brothers, in whose hearts the mighty conviction of His Messiahship had taken root. Simon and Andrew were at home in Capernaum; but we may, perhaps, infer from the manner in which the sickness of Peter’s wife’s mother is mentioned, that Peter had not been to his house till after the synagogue service. At all events, these four were already detached from ordinary life and bound to Him as disciples. We meet here with our first instance of Mark’s favourite ‘straightway,’ the recurrence of which, in this chapter, so powerfully helps the impression of eager and yet careful swiftness with which Christ ran His course, ‘unhasting, unresting.’ From the beginning Mark stamps his story with the spirit of our Lord’s own words, ‘I must work the works of Him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh.’ And yet there is no hurry, but the calm, equable rapidity with which planets move. The unostentatious manner of Christ’s beginning is noteworthy. He seeks to set Himself in the line of the ordinary teaching of the day. He knew all the faults of the synagogue and the rabbis, and He had come to revolutionise the very conception of religious teaching and worship; but He prefers to intertwine the new with the old, and to make as little disturbance as possible. It is easy to get the cheap praise of ‘originality’ by brushing aside existing methods. It is harder and nobler to use whatever methods may be going, and to breathe new value and life into them. Drowsy, hair-splitting disputations about nothings and endless casuistry were the staple of the synagogue talk; but when He opened His mouth there, the weary formalism went out of the service, and men’s hearts glowed again when they once more heard a Voice that lived, speaking from a Soul that saw the invisible. Mark has no mission to record many of our Lord’s sayings. His Gospel deals more with deeds. The sermon he does not give, but the hearer’s comment he does. Matthew has the same words at the close of the Sermon on the Mount, from which it would seem that they were part of the oral tradition which underlies the written Gospels; but Mark probably has them in their right place. Very naturally, the first synagogue discourse in Capernaum would surprise. Deeper impressions might be made by its successors, but the first hearing of that voice would be an experience that could never be repeated.

The feature of His teaching which astonished the villagers most was its ‘authority.’ That fits in with the impression of strength which Mark wishes to make. Another thing that struck them was its unlikeness to the type of synagogue teaching to which they had been accustomed all their lives. They had got so accustomed to the droning dreariness and trivial subtleties of the rabbis, that it had never entered their heads that there could be any other way of teaching religion than boring men with interminable pedantries about trifles of ritual or outward obedience. This new Teacher would startle all, as an eagle suddenly appearing in a sanhedrim of owls. He would shock many; He would fascinate a few. Nor was it only the dissimilarity of His teaching, but also its authority, that was strange. The scribes spoke with authority enough of a sort, lording it over the despised common people-’men of the earth,’ as they called them-and exacting punctilious obedience and much obsequiousness; but authority over the spirit they had none. They pretended to no power but as expositors of a law; and they fortified themselves by citations of what this, that, and the other rabbi had said, which was all their learning. Christ quoted no one. He did not even say, ‘Moses has said.’ He did not even preface His commands with a ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ He spoke of His own authority: ‘Verily, I say unto you.’ Other teachers explained the law; He is a lawgiver. Others drew more or less pure waters from cisterns; He is in Himself a well of water, from which all may draw. To us, as to these rude villagers in the synagogue of the little fishing-town, Christ’s teaching is unique in this respect. He does not argue; He affirms. He seeks no support from others’ teachings; He alone is sufficient for us. He not only speaks the truth, which needs no other confirmation than His own lips, but He is the truth. We may canvass other men’s teachings, and distinguish their insight from their errors; we have but to accept His. The world outgrows all others; it can only grow up towards the fulness of His. Us and all the ages He teaches with authority, and the guarantee for the truth of His teaching is Himself. ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you.’ No other man has a right to say that to me. But Christ dominates the race, and the strong Son of God is the world’s Teacher.

II. The strong conqueror of demons.

Again we have ‘straightway.’ The language seems to imply that this wretched sufferer burst hurriedly into the synagogue and interrupted the utterance of astonishment by giving it new food. Perhaps the double consciousness of the demoniac may be recognised, the humanity being drawn to Jesus by some disturbed longings, the demoniac consciousness, on the other hand, being repelled. It is no part of my purpose to discuss demoniacal possession. I content myself with remarking that I, for one, do not see how Christ’s credit as a divine Teacher is to be saved without admitting its reality, nor how such phenomena as the demoniac’s knowledge of His nature are to be accounted for on the hypothesis of disease or insanity. It is assuming rather too encyclopædical a knowledge to allege the impossibility of such possession. There are facts enough around us still, which would be at least as satisfactorily accounted for by it as by natural causes; but as to the incident before us, Mark puts it all into three sentences, each of which is pregnant with suggestions. There is, first, the demoniac’s shriek of hatred and despair. Christ had said nothing. If, as we suppose, the man had broken in on the worship, drawn to Jesus, he is no sooner in His presence than the other power that darkly lodged in him overpowers him, and pours out fierce passions from his reluctant lips. There is dreadful meaning in the preposition here used, ‘a man in an unclean spirit,’ as if his human self was immersed in that filthy flood. The words embody three thoughts-the fierce hatred, which disowns all connection with Jesus; the wild terror, which asks or affirms Christ’s destructive might over all foul spirits {for the ‘us’ means not the man and the demon, but the demon and his fellows}; and the recognition of Christ’s holiness, which lashes unholiness into a paroxysm of mingled despair and hate. Does this sound like a madman, or an epileptic, or like a spirit which knew more than men knew, and trembled and hated more than they could do? There is nothing more terrible than the picture, self-drawn in these spasmodic words, of a spirit which, by its very foulness, is made shudderingly sensitive to the disturbing presence of purity, and would fain have nothing to do with Him whom it recognises for the Holy One of God, and therefore its destroyer. Foul things that lurk under stones hurry out of the light when you lift the covering. Spirits that love the darkness are hurt by the light. It is possible to recognise Jesus for what He is, and to hate Him all the more. What a miserable state that is, to hope that we shall have nothing to do with Him! These wild utterances, seething with evil passions and fierce detestation, do point to the possible terminus for men. A black gulf opens in them, from which we are meant to start back with the prayer, ‘Preserve me from going down into that pit!’

What a contrast to the tempest of the demoniac’s wild and whirling words is the calm speech of Christ! He knows His authority, and His word is imperative, curt, and assured: ‘Hold thy peace!’ literally, ‘Be muzzled,’ as if the creature were a dangerous beast, whose raving and snapping must be stopped. Jesus wishes no acknowledgments from such lips. They who bear the vessels of the Lord must be clean. He had taught with authority, and now He in like manner commands. His teaching rested on His own assurance. His miracle is done by His own power. That power is put forth by His simple word; that is to say, the bare exercise or expression of His will is potent.

The third step in the narrative is the immediate obedience of the demon. Reluctant but compelled, malicious to the last, doing the house which he has to leave all the harm he can, and though no longer venturing to speak, yet venting his rage and mortification, and acknowledging his defeat by one parting howl, he comes out.

Again, we are bid to note the impression produced. The interrupted buzz of talk begins once more, and is vividly reported by the fragmentary sentences of Mark 1:27, and by the remark that it was ‘among themselves’ that they compared notes. Two things startled the people:-first, the ‘new teaching’; and second, the authority over demons, into which they naturally generalise the one instance. The busy tongues were not silenced when they left the synagogue. Mark 1:28 shows what happened, in one direction, when the meeting broke up. With another ‘straightway,’ Mark paints the swift flight of the rumour over all the district, and somewhat overleaps the strict line of chronology, to let us hear how far the echo of such a blow sounded. This first miracle recorded by him is as a duel between Christ and the ‘strong man armed,’ who ‘keeps his house.’ The shield of the great oppressor is first struck in challenge by the champion, and His first essay at arms proves Him mightiest. Such a victory well heads the chronicle.

III. The tenderness of the strong Son.

We come back to the strict order of succession with another ‘straightway,’ which opens a very different scene. The Authorised Version gives three ‘straightways’ in the three verses as to the cure of Peter’s mother-in-law. ‘Immediately’ they go to the house; ‘immediately’ they tell Jesus of her; ‘immediately’ the fever leaves her; and even if we omit the third of these, as the Revised Version does, we cannot miss the rapid haste of the narrative, which reflects the unwearied energy of the Master. Peter and Andrew had apparently been ignorant of the sickness till they reached the house, from which the inference is not that it was a slight attack which had come on after they went to the synagogue, but that the two disciples had so really left house and kindred, that though in Capernaum, they had not gone home till they took Jesus there for rest and quiet and food after the toil of the morning. The owners would naturally first know of the sickness, which would interfere with their hospitable purpose; and so Mark’s account seems more near the details than Matthew’s, inasmuch as the former says that Jesus was ‘told’ of the sick woman, while Matthew’s version is that He ‘saw’ her. Luke says that they ‘besought Him for her.’ No doubt that was the meaning of ‘telling’ Him; but Mark’s representation brings out very beautifully the confidence already beginning to spring in their hearts that He needed but to know in order to heal, and the reverence which hindered them from direct asking. The instinct of the devout heart is to tell Christ all its troubles, great or small; and He does not need beseeching before He answers. He did not need to be told either, but He would not rob them or us of the solace of confiding all griefs to Him.

Their confidence was not misplaced. No moment intervened unused between the tidings and the cure. ‘He came,’ as if He had been in some outer room, or not yet in the house, and now passed into the sick chamber. Then comes one of Mark’s minute and graphic details, in which we may see the keen eye and faithful memory of Peter. He ‘took her by the hand, and lifted her up.’ Mark is fond of telling of Christ’s taking by the hand; as, for instance, the little child whom He set in the midst, the blind man whom He healed, the child with the dumb spirit. His touch has power. His grasp means sympathy, tenderness, identification of Himself with us, the communication of upholding, restoring strength. It is a picture, in a small matter, of the very heart of the gospel. ‘He layeth not hold of angels, but He layeth hold of the seed of Abraham.’ It is a lesson for all who would help their fellows, that they must not be too dainty to lay hold of the dirtiest hand, both metaphorically and literally, if they want their sympathy to be believed. His hand banishes not only the disease, but its consequences. Immediate convalescence and restoration to strength follow; and the strength is used, as it should be, in ministering to the Healer who, notwithstanding His power, needed the humble ministration and the poor fare of the fisherman’s hut. What a lesson for all Christian homes is here! Let Jesus know all that troubles them, welcome Him as a guest, tell Him everything, and He will cure all diseases and sorrows, or give the light of His presence to make them endurable. Consecrate to Him the strength which He gives, and let deliverances teach trust, and inflame grateful love, which delights in serving Him who needs no service, but delights in all.

IV. The strong Son, unwearied by toil and sufficient for all the needy.

Each incident in this lesson has a note appended of the impression it made. Mark 1:32 - Mark 1:34 give the united result of all, on the people of Capernaum. They wait till the Sabbath is past, and then, without thought of His long day of work, crowd round the house with their sick. The sinking sun brought no rest for Him, but the new calls found Him neither exhausted nor unwilling. Capernaum was but a little place, and the whole city might well be ‘gathered together at the door,’ some sick, some bearing the sick, all curious and eager. There was no depth in the excitement. There was earnestness enough, no doubt, in the wish for healing, but there was no insight into His message. Any travelling European with a medicine chest can get the same kind of cortege round his tent. These people, who hung upon Him thus, were those of whom He had afterwards to say that it would be ‘more tolerable for Sodom, in the day of judgment, than for them.’ But though He knew the shallowness of the impression, He was not deaf to the misery; and, with power which knew no weariness, and sympathy which had no limit, and a reservoir of healing virtue which the day’s draughts had not emptied by a hairs-breadth, He healed them all. Remarkable is the prohibition of the demons’ speech, They knew Him, while men were ignorant; for they had met Him before to-day. He would have no witness from them; not merely, as has been said, because their attestation would hinder, rather than further, His acceptance by the people, nor because they may be supposed to have spoken in malice, but because a divine decorum forbade that He should accept acknowledgments from such tainted sources.

So ended this first of ‘the days of the Son of Man,’ which our Evangelist records. It was a day of hard toil, of merciful and manifold self-revelation. As teacher and doer, in the synagogue, and in the home, and in the city; as Lord of the dark realms of evil and of disease; as ready to hear hinted and dumb prayers, and able to answer them all; as careless of His own ease, and ready to spend Himself for others’ help,-Jesus showed Himself, on that Sabbath day, strong and tender, the Son of God and the servant of men.


Verse 41

Mark

A PARABLE IN A MIRACLE

CHRIST’S TOUCH

Mark 1:41.

Behold the servant of the Lord’ might be the motto of this Gospel, and ‘He went about doing good and healing’ the summing up of its facts. We have in it comparatively few of our Lord’s discourses, none of His longer, and not very many of His briefer ones. It contains but four parables. This Evangelist gives no miraculous birth as in Matthew, no angels adoring there as in Luke, no gazing into the secrets of Eternity, where the Word who afterwards became flesh dwelt in the bosom of the Father, as in John. He begins with a brief reference to the Forerunner, and then plunges into the story of Christ’s life of service to man and service for God.

In carrying out his conception the Evangelist omits many things found in the other Gospels, which involve the idea of dignity and dominion, while he adds to the incidents which he has in common with them not a few fine and subtle touches to heighten the impression of our Lord’s toil and eagerness in His patient, loving service. Perhaps it may be an instance of this that we find more prominence given to our Lord’s touch as connected with His miracles than in the other Gospels, or perhaps it may merely be an instance of the vivid portraiture, the result of a keen eye for externals, which is so marked a characteristic of this gospel. Whatever the reason, the fact is plain, that Mark delights to dwell on Christ’s touch. The instances are these-first, He puts out His hand, and ‘lifts up’ Peter’s wife’s mother, and immediately the fever leaves her [Mark 1:31]; then, unrepelled by the foul disease, He lays His pure hand upon the leper, and the living mass of corruption is healed [Mark 1:41]; again, He lays His hand on the clammy marble of the dead child’s forehead, and she lives [Mark 5:41]. Further, we have the incidental statement that He was so hindered in His mighty works by unbelief that He could only lay His hands on a few sick folk and heal them [Mark 6:5]. We find next two remarkable incidents, peculiar to Mark, both like each other and unlike our Lord’s other miracles. One is the gradual healing of that deaf and dumb man whom Christ took apart from the crowd, laid His hands on him, thrust His fingers into his ears as if He would clear some impediment, touched his tongue with saliva, said to him, ‘Be opened’; and the man could hear [Mark 8:34]. The other is, the gradual healing of a blind man whom our Lord again leads apart from the crowd, takes by the hand, lays His own kind hands upon the poor, sightless eyeballs, and with singular slowness of progress effects a cure, not by a leap and a bound as He generally does, but by steps and stages; tries it once and finds partial success, has to apply the curative process again, and then the man can see [Mark 8:23]. In addition to these instances there are two other incidents which may also be adduced. It is Mark alone who records for us the fact that He took little children in His arms, and blessed them. And it is Mark alone who records for us the fact that when He came down from the Mount of Transfiguration He laid His hand upon the demoniac boy, writhing in the grip of his tormentor, and lifted him up.

There is much taught us, if we will patiently consider it, by that touch of Christ’s, and I wish to try to bring out its meaning and power.

I. Whatever diviner and sacreder aspect there may be in these incidents, the first thing, and in some senses the most precious thing, in them is that they are the natural expression of a truly human tenderness and compassion.

Now we are so accustomed, and as I believe quite rightly, to look at all Christ’s life down to its minutest events as intended to be a revelation of God, that we are sometimes apt to think about it as if His motive and purpose in everything was didactic. So an unreality creeps over our conceptions of Christ’s life, and we need to be reminded that He was not always acting and speaking in order to convey instruction, but that words and deeds were drawn from Him by the play of simple human feelings. He pitied not only in order to teach us the heart of God, but because His own man’s heart was touched with a feeling of men’s infirmities. We are too apt to think of Him as posing before men with the intent of giving the great revelation of the Love of God. It is the love of Christ Himself, spontaneous, instinctive, without the thought of anything but the suffering that it sees, which gushes out and leads Him to put forth His hand to the outcast beggars, the blind, the deaf, the lepers. That is the first great lesson we have to learn from this and other stories-the swift human sympathy and heart of grace and tenderness which Jesus Christ had for all human suffering, and has to-day as truly as ever.

There is more than this instinctive sympathy taught by Christ’s touch, but it is distinctly taught. How beautifully that comes out in the story of the leper! That wretched man had long dwelt in his isolation. The touch of a friend’s hand or the kiss of loving lips had been long denied him. Christ looks on him, and before He reflects, the spontaneous impulse of pity breaks through the barriers of legal prohibitions and of natural repugnance, and leads Him to lay His holy and healing hand on his foulness.

True pity always instinctively leads us to seek to come near those who are its objects. A man tells his friend some sad story of his sufferings, and while he speaks, unconsciously his listener lays his hand on his arm, and, by a silent pressure, speaks his sympathy. So Christ did with these men-not only in order that He might reveal God to us, but because He was a man, and therefore felt ere He thought. Out flashed from His heart the swift sympathy, followed by the tender pressure of the loving hand-a hand that tried through flesh to reach spirit, and come near the sufferer that it might succour and remove the sorrow.

Christ’s pity is shown by His touch to have this true characteristic of true pity, that it overcomes disgust. All real sympathy does that. Christ is not turned away by the shining whiteness of the leprosy, nor by the eating pestilence beneath it; He is not turned away by the clammy marble hand of the poor dead maiden, nor by the fevered skin of the old woman gasping on her pallet. He lays hold on each, the flushed patient, the loathsome leper, the sacred dead, with the all-equalising touch of a universal love and pity, which disregards all that is repellent, and overflows every barrier and pours itself over every sufferer. We have the same pity of the same Christ to trust to and to lay hold of to-day. He is high above us and yet bending over us; stretching His hand from the throne as truly as He put it out when here on earth; and ready to take us all to His heart in spite of our weakness and wickedness, our failings and our shortcomings, the fever of our flesh and hearts’ desires, the leprosy of our many corruptions, and the death of our sins,-and to hold us ever in the strong, gentle clasp of His divine, omnipotent, and tender hand. This Christ lays hold on us because He loves us, and will not be turned from His compassion by the most loathsome foulness of ours.

II. And now take another point of view from which we may regard this touch of Christ: namely, as the medium of His miraculous power.

There is nothing to me more remarkable about the miracles of our Lord than the royal variety of His methods of healing. Sometimes He works at a distance, sometimes He requires, as it would appear for good reasons, the proximity of the person to be blessed. Sometimes He works by a simple word: ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ ‘Peace be still!’ ‘Come out of him!’ sometimes by a word and a touch, as in the instances before us; sometimes by a touch without a word; sometimes by a word and a touch and a vehicle, as in the saliva that was put on the tongue and in the ears of the deaf, and on the eyes of the blind; sometimes by a vehicle without a word, without a touch, without His presence, as when He said, ‘Go wash in the pool of Siloam, and he washed and was clean.’ So the divine worker varies infinitely and at pleasure, yet not arbitrarily but for profound, even if not always discoverable, reasons, the methods of His miracle-working power, in order that we may learn by these varieties of ways that He is tied to no way; and that His hand, strong and almighty, uses methods and tosses aside methods according to His pleasure, the methods being vitalised when they are used by His will, and being nothing at all in themselves.

The very variety of His methods, then, teaches us that the true cause in every case is His own bare will. A simple word is the highest and most adequate expression of that will. His word is all-powerful: and that is the very signature of divinity. Of whom has it been true from of old that ‘He spake and it was done, He commanded and it stood fast’? Do you believe in a Christ whose bare will, thrown among material things, makes them all plastic, as clay in the potter’s hands, whose mouth rebukes the demons and they flee, rebukes death and it looses its grasp, rebukes the tempest and there is a calm, rebukes disease and there comes health? But this use of Christ’s touch as apparent means for conveying His miraculous power also serves as an illustration of a principle which is exemplified in all His revelation, namely, the employment in condescension to men’s weakness, of outward means as the apparent vehicles of His spiritual power. Just as by the material vehicle sometimes employed for cure, He gave these poor sense-bound natures a ladder by which their faith in His healing power might climb, so in the manner of His revelation and communication of His spiritual gifts, there is provision for the wants of us men, who ever need some body for spirit to make itself manifest by, some form for the ethereal reality, some ‘tabernacle’ for the ‘sun.’ ‘Sacraments,’ outward ceremonies, forms of worship, are vehicles which the Divine Spirit uses in order to bring His gifts to the hearts and the minds of men. They are like the touch of the Christ which heals, not by any virtue in itself, apart from His will which chooses to make it the apparent medium of healing. All these externals are nothing, as the pipes of an organ are nothing, until His breath is breathed through them, and then the flood of sweet sound pours out.

Do not despise the material vehicles and the outward helps which Christ uses for the communication of His healing and His life, but remember that the help that is done upon earth, He does it all Himself. Even Christ’s touch is nothing, if it were not for His own will which flows through it.

III. Consider Christ’s touch as a shadow and symbol of the very heart of His work.

Go back to the past history of this man. Ever since his disease declared itself no human being had touched him. If he had a wife he had been separated from her; if he had children their lips had never kissed his, nor their little hands found their way into his hard palm. Alone he had been walking with the plague-cloth over his face, and the cry ‘Unclean!’ on his lips, lest any man should come near him. Skulking in his isolation, how he must have hungered for the touch of a hand! Every Jew was forbidden to approach him but the priest, who, if he were cured, might pass his hand over the place and pronounce him clean. And here comes a Man who breaks down all the restrictions, stretches a frank hand out across the walls of separation, and touches him. What a reviving assurance of love not yet dead must have come to the man as Christ grasped his hand, even if he saw in Him only a stranger who was not afraid of him and did not turn from him! But beside this thrill of human sympathy, which came hope-bringing to the leper, Christ’s touch had much significance, if we remember that, according to the Mosaic legislation, the priest and the priest alone was to lay his hands on the tainted skin and pronounce the leper whole. So Christ’s touch was a priest’s touch. He lays His hand on corruption and is not tainted. The corruption with which He comes in contact becomes purity. Are not these really the profoundest truths as to His whole work in the world? What is it all but laying hold of the leper and the outcast and the dead-His sympathy leading to His identification of Himself with us in our weakness and misery? That sympathetic life-bringing touch is put forth once for all in His Incarnation and Death. ‘He taketh hold of the seed of Abraham,’ says the Epistle to the Hebrews, looking at our Lord’s work under this same metaphor, and explaining that His laying hold of men was His being ‘made in all points like unto His brethren.’ Just as he took hold of the fevered woman and lifted her from her bed; or, as He thrust His fingers into the deaf ears of that poor man stopped by some impediment, so, in analogous fashion, He becomes one of those whom He would save and help. In His assumption of humanity and in His bowing of His head to death, we behold Him laying hold of our weakness and entering into the fellowship of our pains and of the fruit of sin.

Just as He touches the leper and in unpolluted, or the fever patient and receives no contagion, or the dead and draws no chill of mortality into His warm hand, so He becomes like His brethren in all things, yet without sin. Being found in ‘the likeness of sinful flesh,’ He knows no sin, but wears His manhood unpolluted and dwells among men ‘blameless and harmless, the Son of God, without rebuke.’ Like a sunbeam passing through foul water untarnished and unstained; or like some sweet spring rising in the midst of the salt sea, which yet retains its freshness and pours it over the surrounding bitterness, so Christ takes upon Himself our nature and lays hold of our stained hands with the hand that continues pure while it grasps us, and will make us purer if we grasp it.

Brethren, let your touch answer to His; and as He lays hold of us, in His incarnation and His death, let the hand of our faith clasp His outstretched hand, and though our hold be as faltering and feeble as that of the trembling, wasted fingers which one timid woman once laid on His garment’s hem, the blessing which we need will flow into our veins from the contact. There will be cleansing for our leprosy, sight for our blindness, life driving out death from its throne in our hearts, and we shall be able to recount our joyful experience in the old Psalmist’s triumphant strains-’He sent me from above, He laid hold upon me, He drew me out of many waters.’

IV. Finally, we may look upon these incidents as being in a very important sense a pattern for us.

No good is to be done by any man to his fellows except at the cost of true sympathy which leads to identification and contact. The literal touch of your hand would do more good to some poor outcasts than much solemn advice, or even much material help flung to them as from a height above them. A shake of the hand might be more of a means of grace than a sermon, and more comforting than ever so many free breakfasts and blankets given superciliously.

And, symbolically, we may say that we must be willing to take those by the hand whom we wish to help; that is to say, we must come down to their level, try to see with their eyes, and to think their thoughts, and let them feel that we do not think our purity too fine to come beside their filth, nor shrink from them With repugnance, however we may show disapproval and pity for their sin. Much work done by Christian people has no effect, nor ever will have, because it has peeping through it a poorly concealed ‘I am holier than thou.’ An instinctive movement of repugnance has ruined many a well-meant effort.

Christ has come down to us, and has taken all our nature upon Himself. If there is an outcast and abandoned soul on earth which may not feel that Jesus has laid a loving and healing touch on him, Jesus is not the Saviour for the world. He shrinks from none, He unites Himself with all, therefore ‘He is able to save to the uttermost all who come unto God by Him.’ His conduct is the pattern and the law for us. A Church is a poor affair if it is not a body of people whose experience of Christ’s pity and gratitude for the life which has become theirs through His wondrous making Himself one with them, compels them to do the like in their degree for the sinful and the outcast. Thank God, there are many in every communion who know that constraint of the love of Christ. But the world will not be healed of its sickness till the great body of Christian people awakes to feel that the task and honour of each of them is to go forth bearing Christ’s pity certified by their own.

The sins of professing Christian countries are largely to be laid at the door of the Church. We are idle when we ought to be at work. We ‘pass by on the other side’ when bleeding brethren lie with wounds gaping to be bound up by us. And even when we are moved to service by Christ’s love, and try to do something for our fellows, our work is often tainted by a sense of our own superiority, and we patronise when we should sympathise, and lecture when we should beseech.

We must be content to take lepers by the hand, if we would help them to purity, and to let every outcast feel the warmth of our pitying, loving grasp, if we would draw them into the forsaken Father’s House. Lay your hands on the sinful as Christ did, and they will recover. All your holiness and hope come from Christ’s laying hold of you. Keep hold of Him, and make His great pity and loving identification of Himself with the world of sinners and sufferers, your pattern as well as your hope, and your touch, too, will have virtue. Keeping hold of Him who has taken hold of us, you too may be able to say, ‘Ephphatha, be opened,’ or to lay your hand on the leper, and he will be cleansed.


Verse 42

Mark

A PARABLE IN A MIRACLE

Mark 1:40 f11 - Mark 1:42.

Christ’s miracles are called wonders-that is, deeds which, by their exceptional character, arrest attention and excite surprise. Further, they are called ‘mighty works’-that is, exhibitions of superhuman power. They are still further called ‘signs’-that is, tokens of His divine mission. But they are signs in another sense, being, as it were, parables as well as miracles, and representing on the lower plane of material things the effects of His working on men’s spirits. Thus, His feeding of the hungry speaks of His higher operation as the Bread of Life. His giving sight to the blind foreshadows His illumination of darkened minds. His healing of the diseased speaks of His restoration of sick souls. His stilling of the tempest tells of Him as the Peace-bringer for troubled hearts; and His raising of the dead proclaims Him as the Life-giver, who quickens with the true life all who believe on Him. This parabolic aspect of the miracles is obvious in the case before us. Leprosy received exceptional treatment under the Mosaic law, and the peculiar restrictions to which the sufferer was subjected, as well as the ritual of his cleansing, in the rare cases where the disease wore itself out, are best explained by being considered as symbolical rather than as sanitary. It was taken as an emblem of sin. Its hideous symptoms, its rotting sores, its slow, stealthy, steady progress, its defiance of all known means of cure, made its victim only too faithful a walking image of that worse disease. Remembering this deeper aspect of leprosy, let us study this miracle before us, and try to gather its lessons.

I. First, then, notice the leper’s cry.

Mark connects the story with our Lord’s first journey through Galilee, which was signalised by many miracles, and had excited much stir and talk. The news of the Healer had reached the isolated huts where the lepers herded, and had kindled a spark of hope in one poor wretch, which emboldened him to break through all regulations, and thrust his tainted and unwelcome presence into the shrinking crowd. He seems to have appeared there suddenly, having forced or stolen his way somehow into Christ’s presence. And there he was, with his horrible white face, with his tightened, glistening skin, with some frowsy rag over his mouth, and a hunted look as of a wild beast in his eyes. The crowd shrank back from him; he had no difficulty in making his way to where Christ is sitting, calmly teaching. And Mark’s vivid narrative shows him to us, flinging himself down before the Lord, and, without waiting for question or pause, interrupting whatever was going on, with his piteous cry. Misery and wretchedness make short work of conventional politeness.

Note the keen sense of misery that impels to the passionate desire for relief. A leper with the flesh dropping off his bones could not suppose that there was nothing the matter with him. His disease was too gross and palpable not to be felt; and the depth of misery measured the earnestness of desire. The parallel fails us there. The emblem is all insufficient, for here is the very misery of our deepest misery, that we are unconscious of it, and sometimes even come to love it. There are forms of sickness in which the man goes about, and to each inquiry says, ‘I am perfectly well,’ though everybody else can see death written on his face. And so it is with this terrible malady that has laid its corrupting and putrefying finger upon us all. The worse we are, the less we know that there is anything the matter with us; and the deeper the leprosy has struck its filthy fangs into us, the more ready we are to say that we are sound. We preachers have it for one of our first duties to try to rouse men to the recognition of the facts of their spiritual condition, and all our efforts are too often-as I, for my part, sometimes half despairingly feel when I stand in the pulpit-like a firebrand dropped into a pond, which hisses for a moment and then is extinguished. Men and women sit in pews listening contentedly and quietly, who, if they saw themselves, I do not say even as God sees them, but as others see them, would know that the leprosy is deep in them, and the taint patent to every eye. I do not charge you, my brother, with gross transgressions of plain moralities; I know nothing about that. I know this: ‘As face answereth to face in a glass,’ so doth the heart of man to man, and I bring this message, verified to me by my own consciousness, that we have all gone astray, and ‘wounds and bruises and putrefying sores’ mark us all. If the best of us could see himself for once, in the light of God, as the worst of us will see himself one day, the cry would come from the purest lips, ‘Oh! wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’-this life in death that I carry, rotting and smelling foul to Heaven, about with me, wheresoever I go.

Note, further, this man’s confidence in Christ’s power: ‘Thou canst make me clean.’ He had heard all about the miracles that were being wrought up and down over the country, and he came to the Worker, with nothing of the nature of religious faith in Him, but with entire confidence, based upon the report of previous miracles, in Christ’s ability to heal. I do not suppose that in its nature it was very different from the trust with which savages will crowd round a traveller who has a medicine-chest with him, and expect to be cured of their diseases. But still it was real confidence in our Lord’s power to heal. As a rule, though not without exceptions, He required {we may perhaps say He needed} such confidence as a condition of His miracle-working power.

If we turn from the emblem to the thing signified, from the leprosy of the body to that of the spirit, we may be sure of Christ’s omnipotent ability to cleanse from the extremest severity of the disease, however inveterate and chronic it may have become. Sin dominates men by two opposite lies. I have said how hard it is to get people’s consciences awakened to see the facts of their moral and religious condition; but then, when they are waked up, it is almost as hard to keep them from the other extreme. The devil, first of all, says to a man, ‘It is only a little sin. Do it; you will be none the worse. You can give it up when you like, you know. That is the language before the act. Afterwards, his language is, first, ‘You have done no harm, never mind what people say about sin. Make yourself comfortable,’ and then, when that lie wears itself out, the mask is dropped, and this is what is said: ‘I have got you now, and you cannot get away. Done is done! What thou hast written thou hast written; and neither thou nor anybody else can blot it out.’ Hence the despair into which awakened consciences are apt to drop, and the feeling, which dogs the sense of evil like a spectre, of the hopelessness of all attempts to make oneself better. Brethren, they are both lies; the lie that we are pure is the first; the lie that we are too black to be purified is the second. ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and make God a liar,’ but if we say, as some of us, when once our consciences are stirred, are but too apt to say, ‘We have sinned, and it cleaves to us for ever,’ we deceive ourselves still worse, and still more darkly and doggedly contradict the sure word of God. Christ’s blood atones for all past sin, and has power to bring forgiveness to every one. Christ’s vital Spirit will enter into any heart, and, abiding there, has power to make the foulest clean.

Note, again, the leper’s hesitation. ‘If Thou wilt’-he had no right to presume on Christ’s good will. He knew nothing about the principles upon which His miracles were wrought and His mercy extended. He supposed, no doubt, as he was bound to suppose, in the absence of any plain knowledge, that it was a mere matter of accident, of caprice, of momentary inclination and good nature, to whom the gift of healing should come. And so he draws near with the modest ‘If Thou wilt’; not pretending to know more than he knew, or to have a claim which he had not. But his hesitation is quite as much entreaty as hesitation. What do we mean when we say about a man, ‘He can do it, if he likes,’ but to imply that it is so easy to do it, that it would be cruel not to do it? And so, when the leper said, ‘If Thou wilt, Thou canst,’ he meant, ‘There is no obstacle standing between me and health but Thy will, and surely it cannot be Thy will to leave me in this life in death.’ He, as it were, throws the responsibility for his health or disease upon Christ’s shoulders, and thereby makes the strongest appeal to that loving heart.

We stand on another level. The leper’s hesitation is our certainty. We know the principle upon which His mercy is dispensed; we know that it is a universal, all-embracing love; we know that no caprice nor passing spasm of good nature lies at the bottom of it. We know that if any men are not healed, it is not because Christ will not, but because they will not. If ever there springs in our hearts the dark doubt ‘If Thou wilt,’ which was innocent in this man in the twilight of his knowledge, but is wrong in us in the full noontide of ours, we ought to be able to banish it at once, and to lay none of the responsibility of our continuing unhealed on Christ, but all on ourselves. He has laid it there, when He lamented, ‘How often would I-and ye would not!’ Nothing can be more in accordance with the will of God, of which Jesus Christ is the embodiment, than to deliver men from sin, which is the opposite of His will.

II. Notice, secondly, the Lord’s answer.

Mark’s record of this incident puts the miracle in very small compass, and dilates rather upon the attitude and mind of Jesus Christ preparatory to it. As if, apart altogether from the supernatural element and the lessons that are to be drawn from it, it was worth our while to ponder, for the gladdening of our hearts and the strengthening of our hopes, that lovely picture of sheer simple compassion and tender-heartedness. ‘Jesus, moved with compassion’-a clause which occurs only in Mark’s account-’put forth His hand and touched him, and said, I will; be thou clean.’ Note, then, three things-the compassion, the touch, the word.

As to the first, is it not a precious boon for us, in the midst of our many wearinesses and sorrows and sicknesses, to have that picture of Jesus Christ bending over the leper, and sending, as it were, a gush of pitying love from His heart to flood away all his miseries? It is a true revelation of the heart of Jesus Christ. Simple pity is its very core. That pity is eternal, and subsists as He sits in the calm of the heavens, even as it was manifest whilst He sat teaching in the humble house in Galilee. For ‘we have not a High Priest which cannot be touched with a feeling of our infirmities.’ The pitying Christ is near us all. Nor let us forget that it is this swift shoot of pity which underlies all that follows-the touch, the word, and the cure. Christ does not wait to be moved by the prayers that come from these leprous lips, but He is moved by the leprous lips themselves. The sight of the man affects His pitying heart, which sets in motion all the wheels of His healing powers. So we may learn that the impulse to which His redeeming activity owes its origin wells up from His own heart. Show Him sorrow, and He answers it by a pity of such a sort that it is restless till it helps and assuages. We may rise higher. The pity of Jesus Christ is the summit of His revelation of the Father, and, looking upon that gentle heart, into whose depths we can see as through a little window by these words of my text, we must stand with hushed reverence as beholding not only the compassion of the Man, but therein manifested the pity of the God who, ‘Like as a father pitieth his children, pitieth them that fear Him,’ and pities yet more the more miserable men who fear and love Him not. The Christian’s God is no impassive Being, indifferent to mankind, but ‘One who in all our afflictions is afflicted, and, in His love and in His pity,’ redeems and bears and carries.

Note, still further, the Lord’s touch. With swift obedience to the impulse of His pity, Christ thrusts forth His hand and touches the leper. There was much in that touch, but whatever more we may see in it, we should not be blind to the loving humanity of the act. Remember that the man kneeling there had felt no touch of a hand for years; that the very kisses of his own children and his wife’s embrace of love were denied him. And now Jesus puts out His hand, and, without thinking of Mosaic restrictions and ceremonial prohibitions, yields to the impulse of His pity, and gives assurance of His sympathy and His brotherhood, as He lays His pure fingers upon the rotting ulcers. All men that help their fellows must be contented thus to identify themselves with them and to take them by the hand, if they would seek to deliver them from their evils.

Remember, too, that according to the Mosaic law it was forbidden to any but the priest to touch a leper. Therefore, in this act, beautiful as it is in its uncalculated humanity, there may have been something intended of a deeper kind. Our Lord thereby does one of two things-either He asserts His authority as overriding that of Moses and all his regulations, or He asserts His sacerdotal character. Either way there is a great claim in the act.

Further, we may take that touch of Christ’s as being a parable of His whole work. It was a piece of wonderful sympathy and condescension that He should put out His hand to touch the leper; but it was the result of a far greater and more wonderful piece of sympathy and condescension that He had a hand to touch him with. For the ‘sweet human hands and lips and eyes’ which He wore in this world were assumed by Him in order that He might make Himself one with all sufferers and bear the burden of all their sins. So His touch of the leper symbolises His identifying of Himself with mankind, the foulest and the most degraded; and in this connection there is a profound meaning in one of the ordinarily trivial legends of the Rabbis, who, founding upon a word of the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, tell us that when Messias comes He will be found sitting amongst the lepers at the gate of the city. So He was numbered amongst the transgressors in His life, and ‘with the wicked in His death.’ He touches, and, touching, contracts no impurity, cleansing as the sunlight and the fire do, by burning up the impurity, and not by receiving it into Himself.

Note the Lord’s word, ‘I will; be thou clean.’ It is shaped, convolution for convolution, so to speak, to match the man’s prayer. He ever moulds His response according to the feebleness and imperfection of the petitioner’s faith. But, at the same time, what a ring of autocratic authority and conscious sovereignty there is in the brief, calm, imperative word, ‘I will; be thou clean!’ He accepts the leper’s ascription of power; He claims to work the miracle by His own will, and therein He is either guilty of what comes very near arrogant blasphemy, or He is rightly claiming for Himself a divine prerogative. If His word can tell as a force on material things, what is the conclusion? He who ‘spake and it was done’ is Almighty and Divine.

III. Lastly, note the immediate cure.

Mark tells, with his favourite word ‘straightway,’ how as soon as Christ had spoken, the leprosy departed from the leper. And to turn from the symbol to the fact, the same sudden and complete cleansing is possible for us. Our cleansing from sin must depend upon the present love and present power of Jesus Christ. On account of Christ’s sacrifice, whose efficacy is eternal and lies at the foundation of all our blessedness and our purity until the heavens shall be no more, we are forgiven our sins and our guilt is taken away. By the present indwelling of that cleansing Spirit of the ever-living Christ, which will be given to us each if we seek it, we are cleansed day by day from our evil. ‘The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin,’ not only when shed as propitiatory, but when applied as sanctifying. We must come to Christ, and there must be a real living contact between us and Him through our faith, if we are to possess either the forgiveness or the cleansing which are wrapped up inseparable in His gift.

Further, the suddenness of this cure and its completeness may be reproduced in us. People tell us that to believe in sudden conversion is fanatical. This is not the place to argue that question. It seems to me that such suddenness is in accordance with analogy. And I, for my part, preach with full belief and in the hope that the words may not be spoken altogether in vain to every man, woman, and child listening to me, irrespective of their condition, character, and past, that there is no reason why they should not go to Him straightway; no reason why He should not put out His hand straightway and touch them; no reason why their leprosy should not pass from them straightway, and they lie down to sleep to-night ‘accepted in the Beloved’ and cleansed in Him. Trust Him and He will do it.

Only remember, it was of no use to the leper that crowds had been healed, that floods of blessing had been poured over the land. What he wanted was that a rill should come and refresh his own lips. If you wish to have Christ’s cleansing you must make personal work of it, and come with this prayer, ‘On me be all that cleansing shown!’ You do not need to go to Him with an ‘If’ nor a prayer, for His gift has not waited for our asking, and He has anticipated us by coming with healing in His wings. The parts are reversed, and He prays you to receive the gift, and stands before each of us with the gentle remonstrance upon His lips, ‘Why will ye die when I am here ready to cure you?’ Take Him at His word, for He offers to us all, whether we desire it or no, the cleansing which we need. Take Him at His word, trust Him wholly, trust to His death for forgiveness, to His sanctifying Spirit for cleansing, and ‘straightway’ your ‘leprosy will depart from you,’ and your flesh shall become like the flesh of a little child, and you shall be clean.

 


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Bibliography Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Mark 1:4". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mac/mark-1.html.


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