The Healing of a Withered Hand

May 16, 2021 / No. 4089

We come now to the hearing and the preaching of the Word of God, as we have been making our way through the gospel of Mark. We are up to Mark 3:1-6.

And he entered again into the synagogue; and there was a man there which had a withered hand. And they [that is, the Pharisees] watched him, whether he would heal him on the sabbath day; that they might accuse him. And he saith unto the man which had the withered hand, Stand forth. And he saith unto them, Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? To save life, or to kill? But they held their peace. And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, he saith unto the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it out: and his hand was restored whole as the other. And the Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him.

Let us consider these verses under the theme: “The Healing of a Withered Hand.”

The Setting

I say the setting, or the scene, because here Mark, in typical fashion, describes both the action and the details of this event. He is very descriptive. He sets up a scene to, as it were, catch the tension of the moment, the tension in the air.

It is the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a special day of the week that God has created and set aside for man to cease from his earthly labors and to worship Him. The Sabbath, under the leadership of the Pharisees, had been turned into a day of bondage and rule-keeping, and they are watching Jesus as He comes into the synagogue on this Sabbath. He comes teaching, teaching with authority and preaching the good news of the gospel.

But now, on this Sabbath, the focus is a little different. The interest in the synagogue on this Sabbath day is not just this: What is He going to teach us today? But there is an encounter here, a recipe for controversy, a conflict. We see that in the three parties who are present. There is Jesus. There is the man with a withered hand. And there are here the watching Pharisees.

Jesus was there on the Sabbath, in the synagogue, gathered with the people of God. Is that not a beautiful thing when God’s people come together on the Sabbath? He says, There I am in the midst of you to teach. Jesus is there.

Then there is this unnamed man. He is called here the man with a withered hand. It must have been how he was known, the man with a withered hand. It was his outstanding feature. It was the way people referred to him. For him, probably, this impediment, this disability, was quite embarrassing. Perhaps, because he was unable to work, he had become a beggar. And we can imagine that, on this Sabbath in the synagogue, he sits in the back corner with his head down so as not to be noticed. His hand was withered. That word “withered” is a very descriptive word. It describes what happens to a plant when it dies or to a branch when it is cut off. It becomes lifeless. That is the hand of this man. His arm, shriveled, lifeless, hanging at his side. The man with the withered hand. There he was.

And then, the third party was the Pharisees. The description of them here is the most detailed. We have seen that they have been in conflict with Jesus already. And this is building. It is very obvious what their purpose is from the description of them here in verse 2. Mark says, “They watched him.” This is not “people-watching,” like you might do as you sit on a street corner and see unnamed individuals walking by. But the word here is very strong. It has the idea of scrutiny. They scrutinized Him. And the tense of the verb is this that they kept on watching Him. They are watching Him very intently. They were focused on Him. They were on a fault-finding mission. Mark says they were here to see “whether he would heal him on the sabbath.” They were aware of the presence of this man with the withered hand. And, perhaps, they even planted this man there—”Come along with us to hear Jesus teach.” They want this moment of confrontation. They watched Him to see whether He would heal on the Sabbath. And they did this, verse 2 tells us, so that, this was their purpose, “they might accuse him.” And accuse has the idea of bringing formal charges against Him. They wanted to bring Him before the courts. They wanted to indict Him for a crime. They wanted to arrest Him and bring Him before the rulers in Jerusalem. So, here they are, almost daring Him to heal this man on the Sabbath day.

That is the scene. Sometimes you get the right people together, or perhaps you would say the wrong people together, and it is a recipe for something to happen. Things seem to escalate very quickly and there is a kind of anticipation, watching. What is going to happen? Now here, if we were part of the audience, we would be on the edge of our seats, too. It was not just the Pharisees who were watching, but everybody was there, waiting for something to happen.

And then Luke adds one more detail that really adds another whole dimension to what is going on here. Luke says, in chapter 6:8: “He [that is, Jesus] knew their thoughts.” He knew their thoughts. That is a divine knowledge of the thoughts and intents of the heart of man. He knew their thoughts. Jesus is fully conscious of their motives. He knows why they are there—to destroy Him. God knows our thoughts, and we cannot fool God with an outward religious form, just as these Pharisees could not fool Jesus with their outward religious form.

So, this is the setting.

The Confrontation

Then we have the confrontation. Even though the Pharisees in the synagogue here do not say a word, Mark records this back and forth between Jesus and the Pharisees. The fact that the Pharisees do not say a word, but there is this back and forth between Jesus and the Pharisees, Mark shows us the mastery of Jesus here in this situation. These things are not just happening to Him. Later on He will be arrested, He will be tried, He will be put to death. But you know that He is always in control, in the position of mastery. He is laying down His life for His own.

And that is what Jesus demonstrates here. Just as He came and taught with authority, so now He takes on the Jewish leaders with the same authority. In the confrontation here, there are really six things to be noted.

First, it begins with Jesus going on the offensive. Knowing their thoughts, Luke says, He said to the man with the withered hand, “Stand forth.” Literally, “Stand up in the middle.” Perhaps Jesus called him to the front where he could be seen. And Jesus is, I say, on the offensive. He is not going to hide what He will do. He could. He could have healed this man afterwards privately. He could have waited until the Pharisees were gone. Then they would not have known that He had done this on the Sabbath. But, instead, Jesus creates a scene: “Stand forth!” And the man stands, perhaps somewhat bashfully. All eyes turn to him and to Jesus and to the Pharisees. They look back and forth. This is scene one.

Scene two. Jesus asks a question or two, questions that are parallel in their meaning and very profound. First, “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days or to do evil?” Is it lawful to do good or evil? Now, He puts this question to men who considered themselves, and were considered to be, experts in the law. “So, you experts in the law,” He says, “tell us, is it lawful, is it proper, is it right on the Sabbath day to do what’s good or to do what is evil? Should I do today what is right or wrong?” And then, He adds a second question to it: “To save life or to kill?” To do good or evil? To do good would be to save life. To do evil would be to kill. Now, it seems, at first glance, Jesus is simply asking whether it is okay for Him to heal this man with the withered hand. Would it be wrong for Me not to do good when it is in the power of My hand to do it? James says, “Him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” We can sin by omission. The Pharisees were very concerned, you know, about their sins of commission—breaking their petty laws. Jesus is saying, “Wouldn’t it be a sin for Me to neglect to do what is right?”

I say, at first glance that seems to be the main thing that Jesus says. But there is more to the question. There is an accusation here. It has to do with what is going on in the hearts of these Pharisees. Jesus knows what is going on in their hearts. Jesus is not simply asking them whether He may heal this man, but He puts that in contrast to their evil designs to kill Him. He says, “I come with a design to do good, to save life. You come to destroy, you come to kill. That,” He says, “is evil.” Look down to verse 6. That is the work that they are engaged in on the Sabbath day. Immediately they plot how to kill Him. You see what Jesus is saying? “You can have all these laws that you follow and all these stipulations and yet you are willing to do the work of Satan. You want to do the work of God but you are willing to do the work of Satan—to kill.” Withering question: “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath day or to do evil? to save life or to kill?” That is scene two.

Scene three. Mark turns our attention at the end of verse 4 to their response: “But they held their peace.” That is, they were silent. They said nothing. And the verb tense here is, again, not just that they were silent, but that they kept on in their silence. And the idea here is that there was a pause, there is something that went on for a while. Jesus is looking at them. He is giving them the opportunity to answer. There is silence. You can feel the tension in the air. You can cut it with a knife.

You want to think of this for a minute. This is the silence of the world before the condemning question of the Word. And, as we think about this, this is not an occasion for us to have the smug, haughty kind of feeling against the Pharisees. That is not what this is about. This is the Word putting to silence man. Romans 3 tells us that “all the world shall be silent before God.” This is not a time to cheer for Jesus, but this is a time to be humbly silent. The Word condemns us in our sins and our self-righteousness. Now, hard-hearted in their unbelief, they held their peace. This is a hard-hearted peace, but we should have a humble silence. They were silent. Scene three.

Scene four. We have Jesus’ reaction to their silence in verse 5. This is really the heart of the passage, the power of Jesus, the Son of God, expressed in a righteous display of emotion. “When he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts.” Before He turns to the man with the withered hand, He looks at the Jewish leaders. Some there, some there, with anger. The wrath of the Lamb. This is the look. We understand, this is not a petty, human anger. And His grief here is not a helpless, human grief. No, it is the look of the righteous God who knows the hearts of man. And it is a grief of the holy God who is jealous for the well-being of His people.

I think we should notice a couple of things about the anger of Jesus here. Even the anger of Jesus more generally. The anger of Jesus in the gospels is always and only directed at religious people who either abuse their position or misrepresent the Word of God. You never find that Jesus is angry with the immorality that is going on in the streets. You never find that Jesus is angry with the publicans and the sinners. No, He is angry with the hypocritical leaders. Or He becomes angry sometimes with His disciples when they want to stand in the way of His purpose in the cross. His anger here is directed at the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. It stands in the way of the mercy and the goodness of God that would be displayed in the healing of this man. You read in Scripture: “I will have mercy and not sacrifice.” Mercy and not sacrifice. With all their scruples, there is no mercy. With all their rules, they missed altogether the purpose of the Sabbath.

He is angry. And He is grieved. Mark tells us that He is grieved “for the hardness of their hearts.” Again, this is a divine grief. He is not disappointed here, as though He wants to see these Pharisees come to faith but they refuse Him and they harden their hearts towards Him. That is not the grief. But it is the grief of a jealous God for the holiness of His name. Psalm 119, “Rivers of water have run down my eyes because they kept not thy law.” So, He is angry and grieved. Scene four.

Scene five. He says to the man with the withered hand, verse 5b: “Stretch forth thine hand.” And we read that he did it and the man’s hand was immediately restored whole, just as the other. “Stretch for thy hand.” A couple of things here. First, this man could not stretch forth his hand. This man’s hand was lifeless and withered. And yet, he did stretch forth his hand. It demonstrates for us the power of the word of Jesus as effectual. It is the power of the voice of Jesus Christ in the gospel to dead sinners. He says to them, “Come unto Me.” He says to us, “Believe on Me.” And dead and lifeless sinners are awakened by that call and they come. The man does not say, “I can’t stretch out my hand.” No, God gives him the grace, through the call of Jesus, to do it, to stretch forth that hand. That is the power of the gospel that comes to dead sinners, comes to you and me, and calls us from the darkness and the unbelief of sin and the hardness of our hearts: Come unto Me! Whereas, on the one hand, one is hardened by that, on the other hand, there is the powerful, quickening call in the gospel that comes to the elect who have received the Spirit of God and are sovereignly called as the sheep to follow Him. He says, “My sheep hear my voice and they follow Me.” Stretch forth thine hand. What a powerful call.

And then, I want you to see something else here. This is quite interesting. When Jesus did this miracle, He did not break any of the Pharisees’ laws. Other times when He did miracles on the Sabbath day, He did. But here He does not touch the man, He does not rub any mud on his arm, He does not do any work. He does not tell the man to do any work. He does not say to him, “Carry your bed” or whatever. He simply says, “Stand up, stretch forth your hand.” He speaks. And what they had come to catch Him in, working on the Sabbath so that they could accuse Him of that, they cannot. The man is healed by an invisible work of God’s power. His hand is restored just like the other. And all that Jesus did was speak the word.

That explains the next scene, scene six in verse 6. They go to do exactly what Jesus had accused them of, do evil, kill. Verse 6: “The Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him.” Is it lawful to save life or to kill? They want to kill. And you see the hardness of their hearts on display here in three different ways. First, after witnessing such a miracle, they would not believe. And, second, their hardness of heart is shown in this, that before Christ and His confronting condemnation, their concern is only self-justification, defending themselves. There is no humility. And, third, their hardness of heart is shown here especially in their taking counsel with the Herodians. The Herodians were Jews who had willingly placed themselves into the camp of the occupying Romans. They were enemies against Israel. And now you see the enemies uniting together against Christ. Psalm 2: “The kings of the earth and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against his anointed.” That is the hardness of their heart here.

The Instruction

Now, what instruction is there here for us, what do we learn?

We learn about Jesus Christ, and there are several things here. (We have kind of touched on these already, but we want to bring them together.) What do we learn here about who He is and why He has come?

First, we see here in Christ His courage, His resolve in the face of opposition. His enemies have come very intentionally. They were coming after Him. That is the message they are conveying to Him. And He, as it were, rises to the challenge. It is important for us to see in that both His humanity and His divinity. His humanity. This opposition is already persecution, the persecution that will lead to His arrest and death that He endures as a man—painful and difficult. That is the way it is when we are persecuted. Who likes to be hated and opposed and threatened and followed? We should not think of Jesus as some kind of stoic. No, He is a man. And that is where we see His divinity coming through here. It was only by His divine power that He could be sustained through this suffering, that He could have the courage and unflinching resolve to go on. And it is on account of that that in the end He goes to the cross and we have our salvation! What a Savior! So, first, we see courage.

Second, we see here His anger. Very rarely does our anger come without sin, and that is because our anger is usually motivated by selfishness or self-protection. But the anger of Jesus is different. It is really a preview of the anger with which He will come, jealous for the righteousness of God, in judgment against all who persist in unbelief before the gospel. So, Psalm 2 says: “Kiss the Son, lest ye perish,” when His anger is kindled but a little. Kiss the Son, embrace Him. Believe on Him. Blessed are all those who put their trust in Him (Ps. 2). Believing on Him. You see His anger.

Then, third, and we have certainly touched on this. We see here His sovereign power. It is an amazing power that we see in the miracle itself. “Stretch out thine hand.” And the man is made whole. That is the power by which Jesus comes to the sinner and He is able to overcome sin and to conquer and to turn what we could call withered lives and dead branches into fruitful branches. He is mighty to save.

His power is also the control of the situation. They, the Pharisees, did not stand a chance before Him. That is true of all His life. Constantly, every step of His life, He is intentionally directing the adversaries, demonstrating His power. At the same time, doing that to bring about His own demise, His own destruction. They cannot lift a finger against Him but as He permits. And His power really, here, shows the reality of His love, does it not?

That is really the fourth thing here. They come to kill, to destroy. And here is a man with a withered hand whom Jesus comes to save, to heal. He pities. And His pity is not just a feeling. His pity is a mercy that springs into action. Jesus comes not just to make limp hands whole, but He sees us in our misery. That is why He has come from heaven, to deliver us from the guilt and the power and dominion of our sins, to break it and to set us free and to make us whole. Revelation 21: “No more crying, tears, pain, suffering, deformities. Behold, I make all things new.” And that is the culmination of the work of Christ in the deliverance from sin and its effects. That is what is on display here, the mercy of Jesus Christ.

And then, just a couple of other things that we learn here.

First, we learn something about the Sabbath. We spent more time on this last time in the previous Sabbath dispute. But here what we learn is especially this, that the Sabbath is also for works of mercy. We ought to do good on the Sabbath. We ought to save life in the way that Jesus does here, to spend our day in hospitality, to spend our day in fellowship with other believers in order to lift them up and understand their problems, to visit the sick and the elderly, to pray with the needy. These are appropriate works for the Sabbath day. We ought not to live under the yoke of the Sabbath, but joy in serving in this way.

Then, one other thing that we see here, and that we are instructed in, is human nature, the depravity of human nature, yours and mine. That is what is on display here in the self-righteousness of the Pharisees and the pride and the hard-heartedness before the gospel and the determination to destroy Jesus. This is who we are by nature. There was another Pharisee who wrote this later: “By the grace of God, I am what I am.” And I imagine that Paul, who wrote that, must have looked at these hard-hearted Jews and grieved and was humbled. “By the grace of God, I am what I am.”

How alarming this should be to us that man’s heart could be so hard that he would sit in judgment against Christ the Judge. And yet that is how hard our hearts can be sometimes when we will not hear the Word of God. So, let us pray for soft hearts, ready soil, to receive the Word. Amen.