Encountering Jesus: A Man With a Withered Hand

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Mark 3:5

And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.

Mark 3:5, rsv

This meeting of Jesus with a man in the Capernaum synagogue tugs at my emotions with special power. We don’t know anything about this afflicted man except that he had a withered hand. That’s the point of contact. That’s what triggers all the feeling for the Brownson family. Our son Billy was stricken with encephalitis when he was almost seven. It was one of those rare cases when the measles virus attacks the brain lining. Billy’s fever shot up to 107, 108. He went into convulsions and then a coma. When he finally regained consciousness about 48 hours later, he had suffered considerable brain injury. Among the effects of that, as time wore on, was a paralyzed right arm and a withered hand. I’ll never forget the moment when a compassionate doctor was checking Billy over after his hospitalization, examining especially that right arm. After a number of tests, with evident anguish, the doctor dropped Billy’s hand and looked away. It’s a sad thing, a heartbreaking thing, when a young boy loses the use of a strong right arm.

So we can sense a little bit, my wife and I and Billy’s brothers, what it must have been like for that man in the synagogue long ago, how excited he must have felt when Jesus noticed him, how ecstatic when the miracle had happened.


First, Jesus issued here a kind of challenge. The atmosphere in the synagogue was tense because some there were watching Jesus with narrow, suspicious eyes. He had gained quite a reputation for healing afflicted people, which was all well and good. But this day happened to be the Sabbath when Jesus noticed the man with the withered hand. His enemies were almost wishing He would do something for this afflicted man because then they could bring serious charges against Him. Everyone knew that you weren’t supposed to heal anyone on the Sabbath day. So they sat there, watching intently, eagerly, to see what would happen.

They weren’t disappointed. Jesus spoke directly to the man with the useless arm, “Come here,” or literally, “Rise in the midst.” He wanted the man to stand forth with his need, to go public, as we say. There would be no attempt here to hide what was being done. Quite to the contrary. Jesus wanted the man front and center so that everyone would know just what was going on. That was part of the challenge to His accusers.

Next came a searching question. Jesus looked right at His critics and said, “Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” This is from Mark, chapter 3. “What,” Jesus was asking, “does the Sabbath commandment mean?” For what purpose was it instituted? And especially, what does it mean to keep it? What kind of conduct is appropriate, what sort of motivation should guide us on the Sabbath day? Should we do good or should we do evil? Should we save life or should we destroy it?

In part, this was a question as to whether or not Jesus should heal the man on this occasion. Would it be better to seek his healing or better to leave him in the grip of his handicap? Better to restore life and vigor to that arm of his, or better to leave it useless? To this they might have objected as a ruler of the synagogue did on another occasion, “There are six days on which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed and not on the Sabbath day.” It was conceded by the scribes that if it was a life-and-death matter, healing could be done in spite of the Sabbath restrictions. But only in such cases of dire emergency. Otherwise the healer and those He sought to help should wait.

But there was more to this challenge of Jesus. He knew what was in the hearts of His enemies. And He wanted to confront them directly with what they were seeking to do. What about their conduct on the Sabbath day? What about their motives? Jesus wanted to do a man good on this Sabbath day but they were intent on doing Jesus harm. He wanted to impart life. They schemed of how to take it away. Which? He was asking them, is real Sabbath keeping? Which is what the God of the Sabbath is looking for in His people?

At this, the enemies of Jesus had nothing to say. Perhaps they were stunned by this direct challenge. Perhaps confused. Perhaps afraid, or perhaps cunning. They would play a waiting game. Why get into a controversy that might see them losing face? They could afford to hold their peace. The next move was up to Jesus. No one spoke.

Now we meet with one of those occasions in the Gospels when we are allowed to see just what Jesus was feeling. This has the unmistakable ring of an eyewitness account. We can almost hear Peter telling Mark about it. As Jesus looked around at the men who refused to answer His question, He was evidently incensed. Nothing made Him as angry as human heartlessness. These were professedly religious people who called themselves the defenders of God’s law. But for them there seemed to be no connection between pleasing God and treating others humanely. Their piety had no heart to it. It had become a monstrous thing in which allegiance to God seemed to go hand in hand with malice toward human beings. The would-be worshipers were men with murderous intent. That was intolerable to Jesus. His eyes blazed as He looked upon them.

But that wasn’t all. He was also “grieved,” we read, “at their hardness of heart.” Anger, yes, but also heartbreak. To see people stubborn in their hostility, resisting appeals to conscience, repressing all human sympathy was unspeakably sad to Jesus.

And doesn’t that picture, friends, God’s reaction to the evil in your life and mine? It angers Him, all rebellion against His commands, all refusal to live a life of love, but it grieves Him too. Jesus weeping over wayward Jerusalem is a revelation of the heart of God. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings but you would not.” “You were not willing.” Is anything more profoundly tragic than that?


But stronger than His anger or even His grief was the healing love of Jesus for this needy man. In that moment so charged with tension, He gave a startling command, “Stretch out your hand!” Have you ever watched a person with a withered hand? The fingers usually are curled in upon themselves, the hand usually smaller than a normal one, the wrist bent. The fingers can usually be pressed inward to some degree, the fist semi-clenched. But the voluntary extension of the fingers, the stretching out of the hand, if it’s anything like our Billy’s was, is humanly impossible. Jesus was calling the man in the synagogue to do something of which he was totally incapable.

Doesn’t that seem like the cruelest kind of mockery? It’s like telling a deaf man to hear or a blind man to see or even a corpse to live. It seems the crudest insensitivity, the worst heartlessness unless along with the command is given some power to respond. And that is what happened here. At the call of Jesus, this man did what he otherwise could never have done. As he sought to stretch out that useless, withered hand, it was suddenly restored. It became as well and strong as his other one. At the word of Jesus, he did the impossible.

I often think about that in my work as a preacher of the gospel. When I tell people about Jesus Christ crucified and risen for them and how God offers to them forgiveness and a new life if they will believe in Christ, I invite them then to repent, to turn away from sin and to turn toward God, receiving Christ with a trusting heart.

The problem with that is that according to the Scriptures, we’re all sinners and we’re all spiritually dead. Spiritually dead people simply don’t respond to God. They don’t turn toward Him. They don’t open their hearts to His love. So what good does it do to preach the gospel to them and then say, “Repent and believe in Christ”?

Well, here’s the secret. When the gospel of Jesus Christ is preached, it’s not only the preacher who speaks – weak, human, inadequate, as all of us are. It’s also the risen Christ Himself. Didn’t He say that to His followers? “He who hears you hears me”? And when He speaks through the gospel and issues the call, “Repent and believe,” these spiritually dead people somehow wake up and live. At His word, they do something that in their own strength, by their own virtue, they could never do. They do turn toward God and embrace His promise in Jesus Christ. At His mighty call, they rise from the dead, as it were, to live for Him.

Has that happened for you? This could be one of those times. You are hearing the Good News right now, and Jesus Christ is calling to you in the light of it to repent, to turn from every sin of which you’re aware, and to believe, to trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior and yield up your life to His lordship. And if you, like that man in the synagogue, will listen to Him and make the slightest effort to “stretch out your hand,” the miracle, the deeper miracle, will happen. What He commands He also gives. Alleluia!


But now, think of what happened next. Look at the consequences of this drama in the synagogue. Listen: “The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (Mark 3:6). That was their response. They were confirmed in their purpose. They had seen enough now. They were more determined than ever to do away with Jesus. Here’s the frightening thing about being confronted with the truth and refusing to listen. Here’s the terrifying thing about seeing God’s love in action and steeling your heart against it. You don’t just stay the same then. You become more deceived and darkened than you were before. You wind up more entrenched in your evil way, more callous, more cruel than you were before. This was what tore Jesus up with grief. He saw that happening to people before His eyes. It’s the saddest thing in the world when human beings reject the light, the life, the redeeming love held out to them in Jesus Christ. Truth resisted always hardens the heart. And hearts that refuse to be broken soon lose all their humanity.

But here’s another consequence of all this – a blessed one. In what we’ve been considering today, the encounter with Jesus of the man with a withered hand, we have a most thrilling revelation. We see Jesus, God come to us in a human life, as one who is willing to risk everything for our sakes. Even though He knew He would incur hostility and have the leaders of His nation plotting to destroy Him, He would not turn aside from His mission of mercy. He was determined to heal this man no matter what it cost. He had the courage of an unspeakable love.

And that, friends, is the gospel. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. Jesus so loved us that He wouldn’t let anything stop Him from going all the way to a cross so that we could be whole, so that we could have life. He risked all, gave all, suffered all for our sakes. And now He’s alive forever to be our Savior.

So, what consequences will there be from all of that for us, for you, for me? What difference will it make for us that Jesus Christ loved us so bravely and so well? For myself, I want to receive His gift of salvation with a trusting heart. I want to offer myself to Him in gratitude. I want to live for Him until my last breath. What about you? Oh, may this disclosure of His truth and this testimony to His healing, saving love have results like that for all of us today.