[Commentary on Mark 5] In the larger context, Jesus proves Himself to be stronger than our uncleanness, even our death. In our focal passage, He also proves Himself as compassionate and empathetic. We can approach Jesus boldly, no matter how dire our circumstance. We can also trust Jesus to do the right thing, regardless of our belief.
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
In our passage this week, Jesus brings a little girl back from death. I wonder what she experienced? Our culture is fascinated with Near-Death Experiences; death is the one, true unknown to humans, and people really want to know what happens to you when you die (in other words, how serious do they need to take our Jesus talk?). There have been multiple scientific studies done on people who claim to have had them. Because things like brain and heart activity can be measured, those studies have been able to “quantify” how “dead” that person was and then categorize their testimony as such (for those of you who are skeptical, there are plenty of testimonies from people who have been declared medically dead). Ask your class, “What do you know about so-called Near-Death Experiences?” Google it if you want more info (but be careful—lots of frivolous sites have “the truth” about it). You’ll find things like “out-of-body experience”, moving through a “tunnel” towards a “light”, encountering “beings” of light, and so on. For those of you who are skeptical, some people have described things and known things that cannot be explained, and further these experiences have been consistently recorded around the world and for centuries. I don’t know what to do with some of the things I’ve read reported (the story behind Heaven Is For Real has some of these truly amazing details). But I do know two things: “it is appointed for people to die once—and after this, judgment” (Hebrews 9:27), and “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven —the Son of Man” (John 3:13). As for the first verse, I do believe that the little girl in our passage truly died, as did Lazarus. However, God has the right and ability to return a person to life before that judgment. As for the second verse, I believe very strongly that none of these Near Death Experiences had anything to do with heaven. None of those stories (sorry, Heaven Is For Real author) can truly describe heaven because only Jesus has been there and come to earth. As always, because such experiences can be very personal and emotional, be very gracious in moderating a discussion about this. My take: I do believe that these Near Death Experiences happened and mean something (I’m not going to accuse someone of lying about this); I just don’t know what they mean.
If you have class members skeptical about Near Death Experiences, they are probably also skeptical about miraculous healings. And for good reason! There are lots of charlatans out there trying to get your money (this article is trustworthy):
But before you let the skeptics have their fill, ask them if Jesus’ healings were real. And, does that same power dwell in us today? If so, are miraculous healings possible? I think we all know that they are. So, what's the problem? Let's investigate.
This Week's Big Idea: Miraculous Healings (and Pentecostalism)
I said on the previous page that I believe miraculous healings are possible. And if you have anyone in your class who balks at that, ask them a direct question: “Do you believe that God has the power to heal someone directly through supernatural means?” If they say anything other than “yes”, tell them that their god is too small. Now—there’s a separate question about how often God heals miraculously, and that’s a question I answer conservatively. I believe that a miracle by definition is extremely rare. So let’s do some theological research:
Our Pentecostal and Charismatic brethren have a very different view of this than I do. The term “Pentecostal” refers to the miraculous events of Pentecost; the term “Charismatic” refers to the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit. To make a long story short, they believe that the miraculous events of the New Testament are normative for all believers in all ages. Take, for example, the Church of the Foursquare Gospel. That gospel has four main parts based on the (in their view) four roles of Jesus Christ:
Baptizer (with the Holy Sprit)
In other words, Jesus didn’t just come to be our Savior, and so the Baptist gospel is “too small”. When Isaiah said that Jesus took up our infirmities and carried our sicknesses, Isaiah meant that literally (see Matt 8:17). In Christ’s atonement, He not only paved the way for our soul to be healed of sin (and saved from hell) but also for our body to be healed of sickness. They look at Jesus’ extensive healing ministry in the Gospels as proof that He desired to heal people physically. Basically, every Pentecostal movement holds some version of this belief. When I have talked to a Pentecostal Christian about this, they have related it to faith—Baptists don’t have the faith in God’s ability to heal, and so God doesn’t heal as often in Baptist churches. (Yes, that is fairly condescending, but I promise that it is not meant as an insult; frankly, I think our brethren have a point—too often we don’t really believe that God will heal someone when we ask Him for a miracle. But to me, there’s a difference in believing that God won’t and God can’t. Few Baptists I know believe that God can’t.)
So, what do we do with these claims about God’s miraculous healings? I start with what I said earlier: by definition, a miracle must be exceedingly rare. If we have miraculous healings left and right, then how do we know when God is truly acting? Most of the healings I have heard of seem to have been by natural and medical-professional means. The human body is an amazing thing with an amazing capacity for self-healing! That doesn’t mean that God didn’t help the body do what He created it to do! It just means that we don’t have to call it a “miraculous healing”. Even in Jesus’ day, when Jesus was physically present, how many people around Him died? How many people were sick and injured? How many of those did He heal? A very small percentage. Why? Because healings were a demonstration of His power, not a promise to every inhabitant of Judea. We have enough testimonies from “faith healers” with respect to admitted fakery that we have every right to be skeptical about so-called miraculous healings. However, even we scared-of-the-Spirit Baptists should pray for God’s working in someone’s body for healing and believe that He will do it, and we should celebrate Him when it happens, regardless of if we think it was “a miracle”!
The Context in Mark
Man, we skip some great stories! The parable of the sower and the soils, the parable of the lamp on a stand, the parable of the mustard seed. Jesus calming the storm! Casting the demon Legion into the pigs! The woman who touched the hem of His garment! Mark must be an amazing book if those didn’t “make the Lifeway cut”.
Mark only includes a few segments devoted entirely to teachings. But these particular teachings are about doings: spreading the Word, acting on what you hear. Jesus’ power over the storm is a necessary story of the extent of His power. People can fake healings and exorcisms; no one can fake calming a storm. See the back page for how these events harmonize in the Gospels. Some scholars believe that Mark presented these events chronologically; some believe he grouped them by theme (in this case, ritual uncleanness: the demoniac involved tombs and pigs; the woman involved a hemorrhage; the child involved a dead body). My guess is that they all happened in the same era of ministry, but Mark telescoped them together to make it easier for the reader to follow the main point: Jesus is above our rules for ritual cleanness. In fact, Jesus makes unclean things clean (not the other way around).
Here are some specific truths you might point out to your class as you orient them to the current lesson. The story of the demon-possessed man makes it clear that, from the beginning, demons were very aware of exactly who Jesus was. But it also establishes that not everyone has to follow Jesus to serve Jesus; Jesus sent that man home to testify to the his own people. The story of the woman who touched the hem of His garment is quite interesting. It gives the strong impression that Jesus’ power could be used “without His permission”, so to speak. This is where the superstitions about relics (the shroud of Turin, the Holy Grail, the veil of Veronica, etc.) come in—people can touch something that touched Jesus, and they can be healed. I strongly reject the theology behind relics, but what do I do with the story of this woman? She clearly had faith (even if it was wrapped up in prevailing superstitions of her day), and God chose to reward that faith. My guess is that God allowed this healing to take place knowing that Jesus would turn it into a teaching moment about faith. (And here's an interesting question—might God have done this without Jesus’ knowledge?; a lot to think about!) The point of the story is that Jesus not only has the power to heal, His power is a part of Him (and not the result of some spell or stage). And then this week’s story of the dead girl pushes Jesus’ power to the extreme: over death itself.
So that’s what you need to explain before you read these verses. In the context of our passage, Mark is establishing that Jesus doesn’t just have power over the physical part of our world, He has power over the unclean things of our world—the power to make everything clean. That, of course, foreshadows His atonement on the cross.
Part 1: Willing (Mark 5:21-24)
When Jesus had crossed over again by boat to the other side, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the sea. One of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet and begged him earnestly, “My little daughter is dying. Come and lay your hands on her so that she can get well and live.” So Jesus went with him, and a large crowd was following and pressing against him.
Jesus had been on the southeast side of the Sea of Galilee (see the map below). I think it likely that this event took place in Capernaum, although Mark does not say. You can note to your class that Jesus left a great crowd in Capernaum (Mark 4:36), and that crowd showed right back up when He returned. (I can understand why Jesus’ mother was worried about Him.)
Jairus, a synagogue leader and someone who may have been in the party who opposed Jesus (see Mark 3:1-6), approached Jesus in desperation. (Note: Jairus may not have been a part of the Pharisee plot, but if so, it’s amazing how political differences become less important during a personal crisis. Think about that!) The words for “begged” and “earnestly” are as intense as such words can get. He had a single concern—his daughter’s life—and nothing else mattered. Jairus knew of Jesus’ miracles, and I submit that the Sabbath healing in Mark 3:1-6 likely happened in Jairus’s synagogue (!). Jairus clearly believed that Jesus had the power to heal his daughter, and he did not care what other Pharisees thought about his tactics. Mark does not describe her condition, but the fact that mourners were already present outside the house makes it clear that her condition was serious and people (maybe everyone except for Jairus) expected her to die.
Some of your class members may have experienced something similar to Jairus. A loved one is dying, and you hear about a miracle cure that might be available. Wouldn’t most of us drop everything and at least attempt to bring that cure? Even if everyone has said it’s too late? I think we all would have done what Jairus did. The application for today is (1) enlist every medical expert you can to help take care of your family, but (2) also go to God in prayer at the beginning, not until after the doctors have failed.
Aside: Jesus and Jairus
“Jairus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew name “Jair”, meaning “Yahweh shines/enlightens”. He was a synagogue leader (and thus likely a Pharisee) on the “other side” of the lake from the Gerasenes/Gadarenes, where Jesus had healed the demoniac. Mark does not say where Jairus lived, but it would make sense if Jesus had simply crossed back to Capernaum.
So, imagine with me . . . Where has Jesus regularly attended synagogue? In Capernaum where He has been staying with Andrew and Peter. Who could be one of the leaders in that synagogue? Jairus. The daughter was 12 years old, which means she would also have attended synagogue. So Jesus knew them, and they knew Him. And who was plotting against Jesus? The Pharisees! Does not this possibility raise the emotional tension in this event? Jesus knew Jairus, and Jairus may have been opposing Jesus. It doesn’t change the power of the miracle, but it gives the father’s appeal so much more depth.
Part 2: Undeterred (Mark 5:35-40)
While he was still speaking, people came from the synagogue leader’s house and said, “Your daughter is dead. Why bother the teacher anymore?” When Jesus overheard what was said, he told the synagogue leader, “Don’t be afraid. Only believe.” He did not let anyone accompany him except Peter, James, and John, James’s brother. They came to the leader’s house, and he saw a commotion—people weeping and wailing loudly. He went in and said to them, “Why are you making a commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but asleep.” They laughed at him, but he put them all outside. He took the child’s father, mother, and those who were with him, and entered the place where the child was.
We skip over the amazing story of the woman who touched Jesus’ garment (see my introduction) to get to the conclusion of this desperate situation. Before Jesus could get there, people inform them that the girl is dead. Judging from the circumstances and the terse tone of the statement, it seems that everyone but the dad knew that the girl was about to die, and they may even have been embarrassed about his last-ditch attempt at a healing. And Jesus’ tender reaction seems to indicate that He knew what was going on. Note as well that Jesus didn’t sugarcoat anything or lie (or make any promises); He just made a compassionate statement to a struggling father. Unlike Jesus, we are not able to bring about a miraculous healing, so when someone comes to us in extreme fear about the medical condition of a loved one, we need to be careful about what we say. If the sick person is a Christian, however, I think “don’t be afraid” is a profound thing for us to say.
Jesus only took Peter, James, and John with Him. We really don’t know how this “pecking order” developed, except to say that by personality and background, those three were the likeliest for leadership. But primarily, Jesus was showing respect for the child's parents by not bringing a huge entourage in to gaggle and gawk. This was an intimate moment, and Jesus treated it appropriately. Scholars have used this passage to relate “death” and “sleep”, but I think Jesus was using that image here as part of His “messianic secret”. He didn’t want the big attention yet, so He downplayed the situation to the gossip-y crowd.
A question you can ask your class: when you are comforting a friend whose loved one is dying, what do you say? I would consider this a very practical (if uncomfortable) question that all of us will have to deal with eventually. I believe strongly in being hopeful and praying for a miracle. But I also believe strongly in not making false promises. I also believe in being realistic. In our passage, the girl was brought back to life! Wow! But guess what? She died eventually. The only perfect, eternal solution to the problem of our flawed bodies is salvation in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, I try to bring every discussion about sickness and death back around to Jesus and why our hope is really only found in Him. It doesn’t make death and loss less painful or sad, but it gives us a reason to keep waking up in the morning.
Aside on Professional Mourners
In the Near East and Middle East, public displays of mourning are still “the norm”. The idea is that we can know how much a person was loved by how loudly a crowd wails after their death. Not surprisingly, families have been known to hire “professional mourners” to make their loved one seem really loved. Yes, that might seem odd, but I don’t think it’s that different from "requesting" someone you don’t know to preach a funeral sermon or sing a certain song. Anyway, it’s how I explain the abrupt about-face of laughter at Jesus. I don’t think I could switch from true, bitter mourning to sarcastic laughter under any circumstances. But if I were only acting, I certainly could.
Aside on What Jews Believed about Death
For starters, let’s acknowledge that the Romans were pretty fatalistic—most believed that the body and soul simply ceased to exist after death (part of the reason why Paul had to explain the resurrection in 1 Cor 15). Sadducees believed that too: there was no afterlife (they only believed the Torah, and the first five books of the Bible are rather silent about the afterlife).
Greeks, on the other hand, were more spiritual. You might remember that Plato believed in the immortality of the soul (but not the body), but not in a personal way—more like a new age-y “world spirit” kind of thing. Essenes, who were separated from other Jews, seem to have been influenced by Plato.
Pharisees believed in a resurrection and eternal life, and if Martha’s response to Jesus (John 11:24) means anything, it is that most of the common Jews would have agreed with the Pharisees. I have said in previous handouts that the Old Testament, while vague, does give us enough information to believe that the soul continues to exist after death. Sheol was a place (a place where Jews didn’t want to go), a place where God did not dwell. On the other hand, David believed that he would dwell in God’s house forever (Ps 23:6, which means something more than "all the days of my current life"), and many psalms speak of being in God’s presence for eternity.
Specifically for our passage this week: Jairus, the synagogue leader, was probably a Pharisee and thus believed that his daughter’s soul endured. But because the Old Testament did not offer clear descriptions of what that meant (unlike the New Testament), he was probably still very concerned, even scared. The daughter’s return to life would have been as moving as you think it would.
Part 3: Able (Mark 5:41-43)
Then he took the child by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum” (which is translated, “Little girl, I say to you, get up”). Immediately the girl got up and began to walk. (She was twelve years old.) At this they were utterly astounded. Then he gave them strict orders that no one should know about this and told them to give her something to eat.
You’ll note some parallels between this event and the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44; see also the widow’s son in Luke 7:11-17). Importantly, Jesus didn’t need an elaborate spell; He just spoke to the dead person. Mark reports that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, the “commoner” language of the region (even though his Roman audience wouldn’t have known it, Mark thought it important to give Jesus’ exact words; my guess is that this event was firmly etched in Peter’s mind). The reference to “walk” lets us know that this was a complete and utter healing. If she was so sick as to die, that meant something was terribly wrong with her body. Not anymore. She was healed. The reference to “give her something to eat” is important on two levels. (1) It clarifies that she’s a normal person (not an apparition). (2) It returns caretaking to the parents again. They don’t need a miracle worker around anymore; they can take care of her themselves now.
Here are two discussions you might have to bring this lesson home. First, have your class describe the ways Jesus demonstrated His worthiness to be worshiped in this passage (I’m thinking more than just His power over death, but His care and compassion and respect). This is one of those underappreciated stories in the Gospels that packs so much meaning into so few verses. Second, have your class grapple with the reality that many children died in Jesus’ day, and He didn’t raise them back to life. What do we do with that (knowing that we ask for God to spare our loved ones today, and He doesn’t always do that)? Well, like I said before, death comes for us all. The more important question is if our/their soul is prepared for death. Compared to eternity, the few decades we spend in this life are miniscule. And then, what are we doing to support and care for those families who are enduring an intense hospital stay? Remember that Jesus thought about the practical, human needs of this family. So, in addition to giving spiritual encouragement and a clear gospel message, we should make sure that we’re doing what we can to meet physical needs (things like bringing meals, mowing lawns, getting kids to school, etc.). This is a great lesson about courage and encouragement.
Harmony of the Gospels
Matthew Mark Luke
Teaching in parables 13:1-3 4:1-2 8:4
Parable of the soils 13:3-23 4:3-25 8:5-18
Parable of the seed 4:26-29
Parable of the weeds 13:24-30
Parable of the mustard 13:31-32 4:30-32
Parable of the unleavened 13:33-35 4:33-34
Parables explained 13:36-53
Calming the storm 8:23-27 4:35-41 8:22-25
Healing the demoniac 8:28-34 5:1-20 8:26-39
[This week’s passage] 9:18-26 5:21-43 8:40-56
More miracles 9:27-34
Final visit to Nazareth 13:54-58 6:1-6
This comparison gives us a pretty clear look into two common trends: Matthew includes teaching moments that Mark does not, and when Matthew reports what Mark reported, Matthew shortens it. Again, it just comes down to purpose and audience. And, as I hint at inside, some of Mark’s details would have been very personal to Peter (his source), which is why Mark would have included them.