Story 45: Hearts Grow Harder Still

Matt. 12:1-14; Mark 2:23-3:6; Luke 6:1-11

cuore nella pietra

In the Old Testament book of Exodus, God sent Moses to the Pharaoh of Egypt to ask him to set the children of God free. In the story, we can watch over time how Pharaoh hardened his heart over and over again. Until the story finally shifts to a new phrase. It starts talking about how God hardened Pharoah’s heart. While we know that God chooses those who will belong to Him (see Ephesians 1 and Romans 9), we also see how somehow within the purview of His will He offers men the opportunity to respond to Him. In His tremendous love and grace, He gives them chance after chance until at some point, their opportunities are over. God lets them have their own way. In the story of the life of Christ, we see the Lord give the religious leaders chance after chance to see what God was doing in their time. Some of them, like Nicodemus, respond to their Messiah with devotion. Others, like the Pharaoh, add layer upon layer of hard crust on their hearts.

After His great confrontation with the religious leaders in Jerusalem (see Story 44), Jesus made the journey with His disciples back home to Galilee.

One day, Jesus and His disciples were going for a walk through the grain fields of the countryside. It was the Sabbath, the day of rest and worship for the people of God. As they went along, His disciples began to pick heads of grain to eat. That may seem like a small thing to you, but when the Pharisees heard about it, they were outraged.

The way the Jewish people spent their Sabbath was a very big deal to the Pharisees. They had created a bunch of rules about what the Jewish people could or could not do on the Sabbath.

It was true that God commanded that His people rest on the Sabbath, but these leaders took it to a wild extreme. Sabbath was a gracious, loving gift from God to His people. He was creating sacred space for them to come every week and have fellowship with Him.  It was a day of holiness where mercy should have been celebrated all the more!  The religious leaders took the beautiful, life-giving law of God and added harsh, extra laws to them. Everyone felt bound to carefully obey or risk stern condemnation.

That doesn’t sound very restful does it? In fact, it was pretty distracting. Instead of spending a peaceful day with their Lord, everyone had to worry about getting into trouble. Even the restful and leisurely act of going for a walk through the grain fields could be turned into a major confrontation.

According to the religious leaders, when Jesus’ disciples rubbed the grain in their hands and pop the kernels into their mouths, that crossed the line. The Pharisees declared, “That is too much like harvesting! That’s work! Who do these men think they are to disobey the Sabbath?” Do you see how controlling it was? Can you imagine how exhausting it was to have people regulating everything down to such rigorous detail? The Sabbath was being robbed of its joy by the very people who were supposed to lead the nation in worship!

The Pharisees did not see it that way. They went to Jesus and said, “‘Why do you do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’” They were taking their own ideas…the ones they had added to God’s holy Law…and made them as important as Scripture itself! Jesus would have none of it. He went back to the Word and reminded them of a story about David, the great king and one of the great heroes of the Jewish faith. This is what Jesus said:

“‘Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread-which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. 

Wow. The eating of the bread in the Temple was forbidden in the most sacred laws of Torah. But King David broke that law because it was more important to take care of his men. How much more can the disciples of the Messiah break the petty laws that the Pharisees had made up on their own? Jesus went on:

Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent…(Matt. 12:3-8). The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath’”   (Mark 2:27).

Wow. It is hard for us to understand what an extreme claim Jesus was making here. He claimed to be greater that the holy Temple in Jerusalem! He claimed to be Lord of the Sabbath!

He stood in the face of these men and claimed the authority to tell them that they were all wrong! How the Pharisees must have been seething at this tremendous rebuke! And how much worse that the One rebuking them was claiming to be God! Did they worry that He might be right?

On another Sabbath, Jesus went to a synagogue where the Pharisees were already plotting against Him. They wanted to catch Him doing something that they could get Him in trouble for, so they pushed the question of the Sabbath even further. “‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’”

In the synagogue was a man with a shriveled up hand. Was he a normal, pious Jew that came every week? Had he come because of rumors about Jesus, the Miracle Man? Or was he there because the Jewish leaders wanted to set Jesus up? The Lord had a reputation for compassion, and the leaders were pretty sure He wouldn’t be able to resist a chance to heal. Then they could accuse Him. This was a trap.

Jesus was unafraid. He was not under their power or control. The Spirit of the Lord had anointed Him for perfect wisdom (see Isaiah 11:1-5). He challenged the tensions head on and told the Pharisees:

“‘If any of you has sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep? Therefore, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.’”

Wow! That flew in the face of everything they commanded of the people. He basically said, “You are not only wrong, you are utterly without mercy.”

Then Jesus did something even more wonderful. He told the man with the withered hand to come forward and stand in front of everyone. Boldness! As the man stood there, Jesus asked the Pharisees, “‘I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save a life, or destroy it?’” He looked directly at the men who wanted to destroy His life. Then He spoke to the man with the withered arm, “‘Stretch out your hand.’”

The man held up his arm and stretched it out, and as he did, a magnificent miracle happened. His arm grew out to perfect health! It was totally restored! It was just like his other, good hand! Wow! Can you imagine watching it happen? Can you imagine the wonderful change it would make in this man’s life? Wouldn’t that make you feel like rejoicing for the rest of the day…or the rest of the year?

But the Pharisees were so angry that they couldn’t enjoy the miracle. They were bitter that even though Jesus had performed a miracle on the Sabbath, they still couldn’t accuse Him. For you see, Jesus hadn’t touched the man to heal him. He only told the man to stretch out his hand. Jesus didn’t do anything that the Pharisees could call work. They couldn’t say that he broke the Sabbath because speaking was allowed on the Sabbath. And yet it was clear to everyone there that the Lord had performed a fabulous miracle. It was a brilliant strategic move on the part of Christ.

The unbelief of the Pharisees was not only sad, it was dangerous, but not for Jesus. He was safe in the will of His Father. They could do nothing against the Son that the Father had not prepared. The unbelief of the Pharisees was dangerous for them. On a day when they could have rejoiced with their Messiah and celebrated an astoundingly wonderful healing, they hardened their hearts. They went off enraged and bitter instead. They began to speak in private meetings with each other, plotting how to destroy the Lord.

And so their hearts grew harder.

They even joined with the Herodians, a group they normally hated, to plan exactly how they could kill their God.

Their hearts grew harder still.

A point would come when their hearts would grow so hard that they would become confirmed in their sin, unable to repent, and doomed to die apart from the love of God.

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