Mark 3:1-6 “Another time he went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, ‘Stand up in front of everyone.’ The Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.”
The one hope for men and women as they approach the grave is that this incident – which has been read in your hearing – did actually occur. A man was miraculously healed in a synagogue in Galilee by the Lord Jesus almost two thousand years ago. That man was one of many similar incurables who were delivered by the Saviour. This Christ was the Lord from heaven who taught the greatest truths the world has heard, telling unforgettable parables. He was a loving and holy man of utter integrity. He is God the Son, and he lives now, for on the third day he rose from the dead, and so he is here with us. I am declaring that he who healed this man with a shriveled hand is the same today, and he can heal our shriveled lives, and many here testify to the transformation he has wrought in them. I commend my Saviour to you. These six verses are all about him – as is the entire gospel record which was written by Mark.
1. HE IS THE WORSHIPPING JESUS.
Firstly, we are presented with a Jesus who went into the synagogue on the Sabbath. In fact Luke tells us, “on the Sabbath day he went into the Synagogue, as was his custom” (Lk. 4:16). In other words, Jesus was born under the law, and he kept the ceremonial and moral law blamelessly. Once a week he had gone with his parents to the synagogue, and now that he has moved out of home and was in his early 30s he didn’t consider that synagogue attendance was something for women and children. He continued to be with them in a place of worship on the Sabbath. He identified with a sinner’s religion, though being without sin himself. It meant for him that he went and heard other men preach who were of far less grace, wisdom and eloquence than himself. He possessed all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, but he also possessed infinite humility. More than that, when Luke tells us of this incident he says this, “On another Sabbath Jesus went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shriveled” (Lk. 6:6). So our Lord himself regularly preached in a synagogue, and this was one of those occasions. There is a line which goes directly from that synagogue in Galilee to our gathering this morning. I am saying to you, “Because Jesus was there, we are here.”
Again, it is significant that not everyone in the synagogue loved Jesus, but he kept going there. He attended a place where there were people who were listening to him just to collect some words they could use against him: “Do you know what he said in the service this morning?” They didn’t like him or his preaching, but that didn’t stop Jesus going there. He still went and faced them each Sabbath. It wasn’t that his opponents had the same reasons for hating him. Some of them were Pharisees whose religion was full of do’s and dont’s, rules and regulation. But others of them were Herodians, supporters of Herod Antipas, more interested in politics than religion. They didn’t want anyone disturbing the situation in Galilee. These various groups agreed on little except that they were both annoyed with Jesus of Nazareth. Yet, with these people watching him closely every Sabbath the Lord Jesus kept going to the synagogue. You can do it too. You can keep following the Saviour when there are members of your family, and people in your business who are stirring you up, and provoking you, and pushing for the moment when you lose your cool. Then they think they’ve got you. You can keep working there, or living in that place.
Sometimes people will dismiss a church, and say that there ‘can be no blessing there’ because there are differences of opinion or divisions, and so ‘they have given up’ on this church; they have ceased praying for it. But what church in the New Testament was of one opinion? The Corinthian congregation had its party spirit. The Roman church had its strong brethren and its weak. The Galatians had its Judaizers working away as a fifth column. The Philippian church had Euodias pulling one way and Syntyche pulling another. The Thessalonians had a group who considered people who continued working instead of waiting for the second coming as weak Christians. Virtually every New Testament congregation had people pulling in a different way from apostolic leadership. Yet how mightily God blessed those churches. Of course the Sovereign Lord can save and sanctify in a church where there are divisions. See how he blessed in this synagogue where the Lord Jesus was teaching into the teeth of those who opposed him. Brethren keep praying and working.
You remember that great picture of the feast in Psalm 23 with a spread table, heads anointed with oil and cups running over? Where is that table spread? It is in the presence of their enemies. Maybe sometimes David had prayed, “Lord remove these enemies and then I could really have a good time. Take away all the awkward people, and then I’ll be able to worship you. My cup of blessing will be full to overflowing.” But what the Lord does is so marvelous: he spreads a table for us in the presence of our opponents. The enemies are still there though we’ve been saying, “Lord we’ll never be happy so long as things are like this; we feel constant surveillance.” But the Lord comes in all the glory of his own grace, and he leaves the opposition still there but he spreads a table, and the cups of trembling saints run over.
That is so often God’s order, the conjunction of opposition and blessing in our lives, tension and communion in the fellowship. The man Christ Jesus might have thought, “How can I preach in this synagogue the glories of the Kingdom of God when the scribes and Pharisees and Herodians are all so mean towards me? There’ll never be any blessing here while they’re like this. I’ll just stop teaching. I’ll be quiet.” His Father said to him, “No. I’m not going to take them away. My grace is sufficient for you. What I’ll do is this, in the very presence of your enemies I will fill your cup to overflowing.” It is exactly that that is seen in Mark 3 – a full cup for this wretched man. The glory of Christ is manifest in that synagogue even with all those critics spying at him.
On the broader scene sometimes we seem to be saying to the Lord, “What a mess Wales is today, and how hard to preach the gospel. Take away the modernists, and the sacerdotalists, and the communists, and the atheists, and the militant Muslims, and the members of the cults. Take far away all the enemies of the church. Blot out all those strongholds of unbelief, and we will have a feast!” The Ancient of Days replies, “Yes I’ll give you a feast, and it will be a magnificent and delicious feast, but it will be in the presence of your enemies, and that’s the only place you can have it.” Some days you and I have to be content to take God’s blessing on God’s terms, and his terms are, “I am not going to remove those disadvantages; those difficulties are going to remain. They’re going to stay just where they are, but if you’ll only take my blessing on my terms then it will be cups full to overflowing.” So Jesus kept the Sabbath, and he always went to the synagogue, and he taught the people in the services, even when there were those who opposed him in the congregation, and God greatly blessed that place. He was the worshipping Jesus.
2. HE IS THE LOVING JESUS.
A poor man was also present in the synagogue. He had a withered shriveled hand. It was his right hand, so Luke tells us. Poor man! I read in a commentary this week that there exists an apocryphal gospel to the Hebrews where we are told that this man with the withered hand was once a stonemason. He had used his hands to earn his bread and keep his family from poverty, but now his right hand is shriveled and he is a pauper. That may or may not have been the case; it is unimportant, but a sweet medieval touch. We certainly know that he was a man in great need; distinguished by a handicap, not by his fine mind, his wit, his voice, his strength, but by a shriveled hand. We know these outsiders in human society beloved by the novelist – the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Phantom of the Opera. Camus, the French existentialist, wrote of a man who was psychologically “The Outsider” – L’etranger. Here in the same synagogue with the Saviour whom we know is able and willing to save those who come to him is this handicapped man. He was the reason why on this Sabbath Jesus chose to be in this particular synagogue, in order to meet this man and others like them, to minister to them. Forty days only were spend in the desert but three years in dealing with sinners.
The Saviour hates sickness and death. Present in the synagogue at that time, yet with us today, is one who showed his world on thousands of occasions just how compassionate he was to those in need. He is going to drill into his followers that if they love him they will serve the least of his disciples; if one is in prison then let them seek every lawful means of entering that prison to help him. If one is sick what can they do to strengthen him? If one is hungry they must feed him, and they must clothe him if he is naked. This is what Jesus told them, and this is exactly what he himself did. The disciples must care for people especially those of the household of faith if Christ truly dwells in them and they dwell in him. I am saying to you that this man was not another ‘case’ for Jesus to seize in order to demonstrate his healing powers. The man with the shriveled hand was not some dramatic illustration of what Jesus could do. He was a person whom the Lord Christ instinctively loved as he loved himself. His healing was a flash of the divine compassion. It says that the long night of sin is not going to reign for ever.
Yet if there is one thing the Bible makes abundantly clear it is that Christ did not come into the world on a super-medical mission. That was not the main object of his coming. To make that the great interpretative principle of his work is to misjudge Christ and misrepresent the gospel. The Christian Scientists make the miracles of Christ the centre of their gospel – not his cross. But these miracles were not his mightiest works. A healthy body and a happy home are great blessings, but Jesus’ mission in the world was enormously more significant than that. It is for your best interest that you understand this. Bodily healing, in a groaning fallen world, was not the prime ministry of Christ. It was not his most important work. There are times and occasions when it is quite clearly not God’s intention to heal bodily ailments. We know that it is through the illness, weakness, and death of God’s people that they all will enter the rest that awaits them in heaven.
It is a mistake to centre the gospel of grace around bodily healing or the increased prosperity of Christians because our message is higher and deeper and grander than that. Of course there are bodily benefits that come to all of us if we are in Christ. Addictions are ended by the power of the indwelling Spirit. Our bodies are presented as living sacrifices to God every day of our lives. The Bible teaches us not to pamper our bodies, or abuse them, or make idols of them.
So here was a man with a withered hand and Jesus saw him and loved him as himself, as we know that the Lord loved the rich young ruler. This man’s healing was not unimportant to Christ any more than our ailments are ignored by him, but I say that temporary healings and mortal respite were not the most important thing in Jesus’ ministry. He came to bring eternal blessings, to fill a new heavens and earth with a company of people who will be as magnificently transformed from their present humiliated bodies and changed into his likeness. He sympathised with this man and did him good, but the Lord had not come first of all to deal with various diseases but with that sin which has brought death into the world. What was greater? Not this man’s hand completely restored but Jesus drinking the cup the Father gave him to drink, and if you do not understand that then you do not yet understand Christianity.
3. HE IS THE ANGRY JESUS.
Jesus “looked around at them in anger” (v.5). If this were the one and only place in the New Testament where there was a reference to the anger of Jesus then we would start to interpret it in some such way as an example of strong language, a hyperbole, that Mark was actually meaning that Jesus did not love these people as much as others in the synagogue. Yet are there not other examples of Jesus’ anger in the gospels. He heard Peter dissuading him from going to the cross and he cried, “Get thee behind me Satan!” Was there no anger in such words? Didn’t he tell many parables in which there is an undertone of his wrath towards Jewish unbelief? When he spoke to the Pharisees in Matthew 23 and pronounced his woes upon these snakes and whitewashed sepulchres and blind leaders of the blind was there not anger in his words? When he made a whip and drove the money-changers out of the Temple at the beginning and then again at the end of his ministry was there not anger in that action? Did he gently and sweetly overturn the tables of the money-changers, saying, “Excuse me for a moment . . . I am dreadfully sorry”? I tell you he did not. “Bang,” went the tables, “Clatter, clatter, clatter.” This was not the well bred Englishman in the Temple. See the uplifted scourge in his hand, the indignation flaming from his eyes and anger vibrating from his voice. He herded that rabble of man and beast from his Father’s house with the snap of his whip ringing in their ears. He who was so gentle and accessible is now all fire, fierce, rigorous, unsparing, consumed by zeal for his Father’s honour. How dare they violate the honour of God.
So this scene in the synagogue is not unique at all when it tells us that Jesus looked around him in anger. This is not the darling little lamb of the women’s quilting circle. This is the Lion of the tribe of Judah. This is the incarnation of Sinai. This is the Lord of Sodom and Gomorra’s destruction; this is Noah’s God; this is the Lord who passed over Egypt and took their first born. Jehovah Jesus has driven out the power of the devil from the lives of men, and shown his authority over every kind of sickness. Now he is declaring God’s Word on the Sabbath. The man sits in the congregation known by all to have a shriveled hand, and “they watched Jesus closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath” (v.2).
Christ takes the initiative: “Stand!” he says. “Stand up in front of everyone!” (v.3) So the man with his withered hand is visible to all. Then the Lord turns on his critics and he asks them this question, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (v.4). What does it mean to keep the law of God? How do those men live who truly love the law of God, who are its champions? Are they those who do good or do evil? Are they those who save life or do they kill? What a simple question! We ask the children in the Sunday School and each one knows the answer. “If you are a Bible Christian do you do good or evil?” What is the Sabbath for? Why has God given it? Man’s blessing or his curse?
The Pharisees would turn to their books and start to debate the question, and their answers would drone on as the insects buzzed on a warm Sabbath afternoon in Galilee. “Well, . . . it all depends . . . how ill is this man? Is he bleeding to death because of an accident with a knife? Then of course apply a tourniquet on the Sabbath. Yes, that’s right.” The Pharisees had their categories and their casuistry and they enjoyed such cases as these – a woman marries one brother and he dies, and then his brother and he dies, and so on, seven brothers in all she married, whose wife is she in the resurrection? That’s what they thought religion was all about, talking like that, splitting hairs in the name of Jehovah. They could measure the border of a garment to the millimetre. Jesus is cutting through all of that and he is asking them whether the Sabbath is to be the one day, of all days, on which he refrains from bringing blessing into the life of a man. Is this going to be a day of deliverance or not?
There was but one answer of course, but not one of the Pharisees there sitting in the chief places, and perhaps they were many of them, broke rank and answered in a common-sense and manly way, let alone in a Jehovahist way. They didn’t say a word. There was a long silence as Jesus gave them opportunity to bear witness to the truth. “But they remained silent” (v.4). They would not answer our Lord’s questions. They all had withered shriveled hearts. They would lock their lips from giving the straightforward smiling reply, “Of course, do good and save life on the Sabbath.” How did they answer Jesus? Mark tells us, “Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus” (v.6). That was their answer: “Let’s blow him away.” All his reasoning just made their hearts harder. They hated him and eventually they murdered him.
It was on these people with their sullen faces, as mute as mice, that Jesus looked with anger. There is no surprise in meeting an angry man who is always red with rage. It is like the blaze of a piece of straw, fierce and futile. They boys wink at one another behind the back of a constantly outraged schoolteacher. But here is a gentle spirit, meek and approachable. He commands reverence on those rare occasions when he manifests anger. Think of a loving father, patient and kind, always keeping himself under control, never retaliating, merciful and mild. Then you see him one day, his finger raised in rage, and his face white. It is a sobering sight.
How rarely was the Saviour angry! There was never any bad temper. He would not have kicked a football boot across a changing room and cut upon the head of a player as one famous manager did last week. Jesus was never angry with circumstances, never angry with incompetent, careless people. He was never angry with stupid, blundering, disappointing disciples. He took them to task and rebuked them, but there was no trace of personal annoyance, no desire to retaliate. When his enemies put a slight on him and sought to destroy his reputation there was no ruffle of wounded dignity against their insults. If his character were blackened, if they called him a drunk, a Sabbath breaker, a friend of the wrong sort of people, an ally of Beelzebub he remained calm and meek. When they dragged him to his death he wasn’t angry either at his trial or on Golgotha. He prayed for his persecutors. There was never any personal resentment in Jesus’ anger, but here, in this synagogue, another taste of the wrath of the Lamb was given.
Jesus didn’t say a word on this occasion. There were none of the denunciations that Peter and the Pharisees were to hear. His anger ended as he ‘looked around’ at them – the term suggests a long full circle look at all the rows of silent Pharisees. Everyone of them was confronted with his glance. He said more without words than another man can say with a word. They were unworthy of a word. More words would not have had the slightest effect upon them. “This helps me to understand that passage in the book of Revelation, where the ungodly are represented as crying to the rocks to cover them, and the hills to hide them from the face of him that sat on the throne. The judge hasn’t yet spoken so much as a single word; not yet has he opened the books; not yet has he pronounced the sentence, ‘Depart, ye cursed’; but they are altogether terrified by the look of that august countenance. Concentrated love dwells in the face of Jesus, the Judge; but on that dread day, they’ll see his face marked by the fires of his wrath. The wrath of a lion is great, but it is nothing compared with that of the Lamb. I wish I had skill to describe our Lord’s look; but I must ask the aid of your understandings and your imaginations to make it vivid to your minds” (C.H.Spurgeon, “Jesus Angry with Hard Hearts”, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit 1886, Volume 31, p.182).
Mark tells us of two emotions experienced by our Lord: “He looked around at them in anger and deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts” (v.5), anger and distress: indignation and inward sorrow. He was angry that they should willingly blind their eyes to a truth so plain as doing good not evil on the Sabbath. “He had put to them a question to which there could only be one answer, and they would not give it; he had thrown light on their eyes, and they would not see it; he had utterly destroyed their chosen pretext for opposition, and yet they would persist in opposing him” (Spurgeon, op cit p.183). It is possible to be angry and to be right. Jesus could be angry with their sin, and yet never cease to be compassionate with these sinners. He took no delight in their mean spirits; he didn’t want them to perish; why should they die? There was no hint of malice in his anger at all. This was love on fire, love burning with indignation against what is so unlovely.
Yet there was also grief. He was heartbroken because their hearts were so hard. Thomas Manton puts it, “He was softened because of their hardness.” He was not like those religious men who rejoiced at the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. He was not like those men who a few years ago would shoot women in the name of religion and righteousness in an Afghanistan football stadium for their adultery. Jesus had tears as well as anger. He felt that these stubborn hearts of theirs would one day bring a terrible judgment upon them, and endless misery. He was grieved because their hardness would hurt them. Their hardness would purchase their own destruction. They were rejecting the light that could take them to heaven and give them fullness of joy. They were rejecting all of that for a second rate religion that could not save. Think of the fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”. It permitted this man real lasting joy, but that law could not heal him. The Sabbath could not restore his hand. The Pharisees could not change him. The Herodians could not do that. None of their hundreds of rules and regulations could give this man the use of his hand again. They were all utterly impotent to change him. Only the Lord Christ could do that. Indeed, only Jesus could help this man really enjoy the blessing of the Sabbath. The Pharisees were powerless to do so. He alone is able to give the grace we need to enter into the joys of obeying the commandments of God. It is grace that produces such obedience, not law. The Pharisees hated such words, and Jesus was deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts. They were resolutely destroying their own souls out of hatred of him, and he was angry more for their sakes than his own.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon says again, “There is something very admirable in our Saviour even when we see him in an unusual condition. Even when he grows angry with men, he is angry with them because they won’t let him bless them, because they will persevere in opposing him for reasons which they can’t themselves support, and dare not even own. If I’d been one of the disciples who were with him in the synagogue, I think I should have burned with indignation to see them all sitting there, refusing to forego their hate, and yet unable to say a word in defence of it. I don’t doubt that the loving spirit of John grew warm . . . What a disgrace to our race, for men to be so inhuman as to wish to see a hand of their fellowman remain withered, and to dare to blame the Saviour who was about to make him whole. Man is indeed at enmity with God when he finds an argument for hatred in a deed of love” (op cit p.183).
Is the Lord Christ angry with any of you today, as he walks up and down the aisles of this congregation, and sits next to you, and reads your hearts? Why was Jesus both outraged and distressed? Mark tells us so that we don’t have to speculate: it was because of “their stubborn hearts.” That is what turns the loving patient Saviour into the righteous Lord of light. They had a calloused conscience, so that all his great miracles and his moving teaching made no impact on their lives whatsoever. Their hearts were leathery like lungs that have been covered by layers of nicotine year after year. My own hands are soft because I use them only to write and type, and when I shake a farmer’s hand on a Sunday night, or an electrician’s hand then I know I am grasping the hand of one who does manual work. The more they use their hands to lift and dig and drill and bore and carry, then the harder becomes the skin of their hands. The more you resist the teaching of Jesus, his commands to you to come to him, the promises he extends that he will give you rest, his invitations to leave your sin and trust in him, then the harder your hearts become. You can die under the sound of the most powerful gospel. Judas did. The heart of flesh gets replaced by a heart of stone, that is, an unfeeling heart, an impenetrable heart, an obstinate heart. There were the rows of Pharisees in the synagogue that day, and the Lord Jesus looked around at them, one by one and he became angry and distressed because there wasn’t one, not a single one, who didn’t hate what Jesus said. They were all strengthening themselves with determination not to open their mouths and answer his question: “he is not going to change our minds. We are not going to become his followers. Whatever he does, preach like an angel, raise the dead, command the winds to obey him, he’s not going to get us. We will say nothing and then plot his murder.”
What was wrong? They would not see, though the open life of Jesus Christ, lived before them day after day, was blameless and beautiful. They wouldn’t see, though he asked them the simplest and plainest question they had ever been asked in lives dominated by religious discussions, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil?” You don’t need a Bachelor of Divinity degree to answer that question. But they strained to be silent. They rolled down the burglar-proof shutters and nothing could get out or in. There is none so blind as those who will not see. I fear we have many here who never actually listen to the gospel on Sundays. They know so much, but they refuse to act on their knowledge. They will not be convinced; they will not be converted. “Just you try to make us listen!” they threaten.
They can bring up no argument against Jesus himself. No such arguments exist. You have to make another Jesus, and that caricature we can all destroy – the one you say is the invention of the first century church, a fictional figure, a crank, a healer – and him you can keep out of your life, but not this Jesus Christ of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The sheer uninventable Lord of Glory, there are no arguments against bowing before him and serving him all our days. His words come to us with sledge-hammer blows. You know it when the Lord has been dealing with you, but those with stubborn hearts still say, No, No, No! They shut their mouths against the waters of life. I have a grandson who refused to open his mouth the first time he sat in a dentist’s chair. He would not! No child could shut his mouth against a dentist more desperately than old men resisting the gospel. Any man can take a horse to water, but ten thousand cannot make the horse drink. We see it here. These scribes and Pharisees heard Jesus preaching that day. You say, “your preacher is boring, but if you could only hear the Saviour preaching you’d become a Christian.” Why should you think that? It is a great delusion. These men heard Jesus and their hearts were as stubborn as yours.
Here were men who heard the truth so clearly and simply. They could not plead that it was all too complicated, that they couldn’t understand the gospel. They understood enough to say No to Jesus becoming their Lord. There are people who understand the Scriptures enough to cast slurs on it. They have a cruelly keen enough eye for non-existent errors in Scripture. They can find this mistake in Genesis and this in Exodus. What great wisdom – to make discoveries against one’s own salvation! Last week there was a reporter who was interviewing William Taylor, the evangelical vicar of St. Helen’s, Bishopsgate, in the city of London. Why was he so opposed to the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams? “Do you believe in the literal truth of everything in Genesis?” she asked him. What an original question to ask! I am sorry that she did not write, “The vicar nodded his head enthusiastically.” Then she quoted I Corinthians 11:6, “For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.” Is that an unchanging moral truth? she wanted to know. Did she really want to know the meaning of that verse? Was she seriously perplexed about it? I very much doubt it. So sharp-sighted, like an eagle, to spot a challenging verse like that in the New Testament, but blind as a bat for things that make for her peace. (“It Is Necessarily So”, Mary Wakefield, The Spectator, 22 February, 2003).
Here were men in the synagogue who professed great reverence for God and for his law. They were fighting against the Lord, but were pretending to be zealous for him. It is an old trick of the enemy, to fight true religion with false religion, to battle with godliness in the name of orthodoxy. I don’t know if any of you in this congregation do this, but many do. My wife and I were walking around Durham Cathedral a few weeks ago and we walked around its horde of monuments raised to the dead. They are made of smooth marble and here and there is a touch of gold leaf. There were long inscriptions in Latin and English. What did it all mean? Simply that there are corpses underneath the statues. Take up the marble slabs and inscriptions and underneath you’ll find dead men’s bones and dust. All around them are the hymns and chants and the reading of Scripture and the sound of sermons, but they are unaffected by it all. They are cold and dry and dead. So it was when Jesus preached in Galilee this day, men’s hearts were as stubborn as the boxes of dust and bones in Durham Cathedral. A hard heart is insensible, impenetrable and inflexible. You can no more change it than you can affect a wall by hitting it with your bare hand. The enmity of the heart of man leads to resistance to all that is good and lovely that comes in the name of Christ. That is why Jesus was angry and distressed.
4. HE IS THE MIGHTY JESUS.
Even with this distress and anger in his heart towards the Pharisees Jesus loved this man with the shriveled hand. He said to him: “‘Stretch out your hand.'” (v.5). The salvation of this man depended on more than Jesus and this man being in the same place at the same time. It involved more than the man knowing that Jesus was the Messiah, the Lord from heaven. It involved more than the man knowing Jesus was able to save him, and more than knowing he was willing to save him. The man could have known all of that but his hand would have remained withered. His salvation, like yours, depends on doing what Christ said.
What is striking in these words of Christ is that the Saviour told him to do what he was not able to do. The Saviour focussed on the problem of his great helplessness. His hand was shriveled, but Christ told him to stretch it out. The man could have protested, “That’s the one thing I cannot do. Don’t torment me,” and sat down again. He didn’t; he obeyed what the Saviour said, and as he submitted to Christ and stretched out his hand we are told, “his hand was completely restored” (v.5). So it is with you. The Lord Jesus has made it plain that no man can come to him except the Father who has sent Jesus draw men to Christ. But the same Christ commands all men to come to him, and we cannot plead, “But this is the one thing I cannot do. You yourself know and declare I cannot come to you.” The Lord Jesus says, “But I am commanding you to come,” and it is as we obey the command of Christ that it is given to us by the Father to come to the Son. “Stretch out that withered hand!” Christ said to this man. In the obedience of faith in Christ he received life and strength and power.
So today the Lord Christ sees you with your stubborn hearts. That heart of yours is a stony heart. It is a suspicious hard heart. It is incapable of sincerely confessing its sin and repenting of it. It has no power at all to produce saving trust in the Lord Jesus. What a leathery old heart it is. But God says to you, “Get a new heart!” (Ez. 18:31), and it is not for me to yell, “How in the world can I get myself a new heart? You are asking for the impossible. Can I turn a pebble into a lump of gold? Can I turn stones into bread? So too I can’t get a new heart.” Whether I can or not I must obey the command of God. I must then cry to him to create in me a new heart. That old heart is destined for just one place and that is hell, and if your heart is in hell then you are going to be in hell with it. But the new heart is destined for just one place, and that is heaven, and if your heart is in heaven then you will be in heaven with it.
How you’ve got to get a new heart. If you would cease to be suspicious of Jesus – of Jesus! – you must have a new heart. If you’re going to love and follow Christ you must have a new heart. If you are going to be with God for ever you must have a new heart. Job said, “God makes my heart soft.” That is the peculiar work of the Holy Spirit, and the Lord Jesus assures so simply, “Behold I make all things new.” God can change our very natures. He can produce within us love, joy and peace. Don’t you desire victory over sin, your worst enemy? Surely you desire to be delivered from all your addictions? Don’t you desire to be a wise and righteous person? Then you have to obey Jesus. Give your heart to him now! Stretch out your withered member to him! Do the impossible. In obedience is attainment. Let me illustrate:
A fire once broke out in Epworth vicarage where the young six year-old John Wesley was asleep on the upper floor. The boy’s father and mother woke up and thought they had got all the children out, but somehow they missed little John. They didn’t realise that he was still in the building until they were all outside. Then the horrible truth dawned on them as they gathered their children around to discover that John missing. The father, Samuel, tried to go back into the house to rescue his little boy, but he was blocked by a sheet of flame which he couldn’t get through. Meanwhile John woke up coughing from inhaling the smoke. He opened the bedroom door and was met by a wall of fire which made it impossible for him to get downstairs. He closed the door and ran to the window. He looked down at the stone floor far below. If he stayed where he was, he would be burned to death. If he jumped, he would be dashed to pieces. It looked hopeless until his father and family and neighbours saw him, held out their arms and shouted, “Jump, John, we will catch you.” John knew that these men were strong enough to catch him, but did that make him safe? John knew that his father loved him and was willing to catch him, but did that make John safe? John not only knew his father and friends were willing and able to catch him, but that his father and all the family and the neighbours were pleading with him, “Jump, John, jump! Please jump!” But did that make him safe? None of those things could save him unless he entrusted himself into the outstretched arms enough to jump into them. If John wouldn’t heed the exhortation and commit himself to those loving arms that would lovingly embrace him, then John would perish. Little John Wesley jumped, and lived, and awakened England 300 years ago.
The One who gave this man a new hand is with us today. He who said to him “Stretch out your hand,” is asking you to give away your old heart by giving it to him. He can renew your spirit, and fill your being with the Holy Spirit. He can take away that nature that refuses to feel or yield or break or bend. “I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh,” he says. Do you think that this can never be done in your case? He has transplanted far harder hearts than yours. He took away the old heart of the chief of sinners. My son, give me your heart, God says. He will take it. Give it to him. Give it to him! Why hang on to it one minute longer. Why cause Jesus Christ any more distress by your stubborn heart? Give it to him. God promises, “I will yield to the plea of the house of Israel and do it for them” (Ez. 36:37). Then plead with him. When has a sinner every pleaded with God and he has not heard him. Will you not inquire? Will you not ask the Lord to do it for you? If so, then your prayer has begun to be answered. Your very desire is a token from the Lord that the old leathery heart, so stubborn and defiant, is yielding and a new heart is taking its place. O God grant that it may be so. Believe in the Lord Jesus that he is able to do this to you, and it shall be according to your faith.
23 February 2003 GEOFF THOMAS