Gospel of Mark
This is our last sermon in the Gospel of Mark and we’re going to end with a bang, covering the entirety of chapter 13. Let’s begin by reading it together:
And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” And Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.
“But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
“But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything out, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not happen in winter. For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days. And then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand.
“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.” (Mark 13 ESV)
Some of you are very excited by that chapter because you love apocalyptic theology, end times information, and talking about what will happen when Christ comes. Others of you might see no value in talking about last things, because it doesn’t affect your daily life. You’re tired of the endless talking and controversy and can’t stand it when preachers try to sound like they have any idea what they’re talking about when it comes to Judgement Day and the Coming of Jesus Christ. Others of you were just confused by all of the strange language and have no idea what Jesus was talking about and dread the idea of a sermon that even tries to explain it – and you’re not alone because I feel that way too!
In truth, my intention today is not to try to explain the end times to you. Books, blogs, movies, television and radio shows have been dedicated to trying to figure out the end of the world – and I don’t intend to try to summarize all of it in one sermon. What I want to do today is address a few important things about how we talk about Apocalyptic (meaning “prophecies about the end of the world”) things.
Predictions & Timing
Let’s start with the first and most obvious question that people seem to want to know and have invested gallons of ink into: When is the end of the world?
Our modern times are inundated with supposed prophets who, through various weird and wonderful means, pull dates out of the air and get people stirred up about the end.
You probably remember Harold Camping who recently predicted that Jesus would come back on May 21, 2011. A bunch of people thought he was right, got really excited, took to the streets, and then – he wasn’t right. When the May 21st date didn’t happen, he said that it was actually a spiritual judgement and that the physical rapture would happen on October 21st. It didn’t. He was also wrong the previous time either when he predicted that Judgement Day would be on September 6, 1994.
If you’re curious about this stuff, there is a wiki-page keeping track of all the predictions that people have been making – and there are six more on the list to come. One of them that has some people riled up about today is the “Four Blood Moons” theory put out by Mark Blitz and John Hagee. His date is September 28, 2015, so we have that to look forward to in the Fall.
I don’t want to get into the details of why these guys are wrong, because they’re not worth my breath. I really wish that Christians would read their Bibles more so they can debunk these guys, but I sympathize that they really want Jesus to come back.
Remember, that at the beginning of Jesus’ talk about the end it says, “Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?’ And Jesus began to say to them, ‘See that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.’” (Mark 13:3-6) and then later in vs 21, “And then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand.” (Mark 13:21-23)
No matter how much fascination there is with details and dates, Jesus Himself declared that He didn’t know when it was going to happen, and that a lot of people will come and lie about it. Everyone who has said they have figured it out has so far, been wrong. Add to that that the kind of language we find in scripture regarding the last days of earth is almost always figurative, illustrative, word-picture-type language that is very difficult to interpret, even for the best scholars.
Some of these people making predictions about the end are false prophets, sent by Satan to distract the church from their mission and get people arguing, majoring on the minors, instead of loving God and people. They’re going to sound really good, and even look very spiritual, but their whole task is to lead people astray. But not all of them. There have actually been many, many people throughout history that have been absolutely certain about the date that all the end-times prophecies of scripture would come start and Jesus would come back.
It goes right back to the days when Paul was writing. In 2 Thessalonians 3 Paul has to command the church to tell some of their people to get back to work because they had quit their jobs thinking that Jesus was coming back soon. When it didn’t happen, they came to the church asking for support. Paul tells the church not to help them, but to command them to go find a job.
A couple generations after the Apostle John finished the biblical Book of Revelation, a man named Irenaeus – who was a disciple of Polycarp, who knew the Apostle John personally – made a prediction that the world would last for 6000 years from the time of Noah.
Saint Augustine of Hippo, a great 4th century theologian and philosopher, famous for his works City of God and Confessions, one of the most influential figures in early Christianity, still read and studied by serious theologians today, was convinced that Jesus would return by 650AD – for him, 250 years in the future.
After the Protestant Reformation, when the Bible was translated into common language and the Gutenburg press made it available to everyone, predictions starting coming out everywhere. And as the Reformers watched corruption of the Catholic church and the rise of the Islamic empire over Europe, they started to feel that the end was near.
Martin Luther, on Feburary 16th, 1546 wrote:
“I hope the last Day of Judgment is not far, I persuade myself verily it will not be absent full three hundred years longer…. God neither will nor can suffer this wicked world much longer, but must strike in with the dreadful, and punish the contemning [to treat with contempt] of His word….” (Luther’s Divine Discourses, Captain Henry Bell, Pg 7-8)
And so it continued for the last few hundred years. Good preachers and false teachers falling into the trap of trying to predict the second coming of Jesus. Some out of evil motives, others out of a loss of hope and a desire for the end to come. A lot of Christians feel the way Luther did as we watch more corruption in the church, the rise of more evil in our culture, and see pagan religions grow in popularity and number – and yet, God has continued to be patient with this world, holding back His hand of judgement year after year.
It is Not for You To Know
When it comes to people predicting the dates and circumstances of the coming of Jesus I often turn to Acts 1:6-8, the last words of Jesus before He Ascended. They knew Jesus was about to leave and they had a final question. It says,
“So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’” In other words, “When are we done? How long until you finish the job once and for all? When are you going to destroy all the enemies and renew this land?” It’s the same question all believers ask themselves eventually. But Jesus answered them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
He tells them not to worry, that God the Father has it under control and knows what He’s doing, and that they don’t need to know “times or seasons”. What do they need to know? They need to know that they have a job to do. They will be given the power of the Holy Spirit to go into the whole world to share the Gospel.
It’s as though Jesus says, “Don’t get stuck on days, dates and details about my second coming. You have bigger fish to fry. Get out there and be My people, be My Church, raise up more disciples, spread my love and message, and let God worry about the end times.”
Two Important Things
Why then, did God send prophets to tell us about what will happen in the end? If it’s none of our business, then why tell us anything? It’s not because He wanted us to spend our hours trying to decipher the minutia of every detail, but to give us two important reminders.
First, that God is in charge of everything, right from the beginning, and already knows what’s going to happen. We look at how the brightest theologians that Israel had to offer read the Old Testament prophecies and we realize that most of them got it wrong. They didn’t figure out who Jesus was, what His mission was, how He would conquer their enemies, or that He would die. It was all there, but they didn’t understand it clearly until it was done. Sure, they had some figured out – like the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, of the tribe of Judah, spend time in Egypt… but they didn’t have the full picture. Not even close.
It’s the same today. We have fuzzy details about the future, and some interesting predictions, but we don’t exactly know how it’s going to happen. The biggest lesson of these prophecies is that God is trustworthy and has everything under control. That no matter what we see around us, no matter how troubling, there aren’t any surprises to God.
In fact, the Book of Revelation, the greatest source of Apocalyptic prophecies in the New Testament wasn’t primarily written to tell us about the end times. It as written to encourage Christians to resist the temptation to give up their faith in the face of great hostility and persecution. It was to tell them that persecution was coming, that trial was coming, and that it was going to get worse before it got better – and that they needed to remember that God was in control and they needed to remain faithful to Jesus as their only Saviour.
If you’ve read Revelation then you know that there is a LOT of worship music in it! It’s a book mean to point us to the greatness, the power, the authority of God, the wonder of His presence, and the amazing life that awaits all those who persevere in their faith until the end. Nothing compares to Him!
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!… “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” (Rev 4:8,11)
Some people wanted to compromise and give into Emperor Worship and allow pagan practices into the church because it would be easier – and John, in the book of Revelation says, “NO! Sand fast, don’t be corrupted! Perilous days lie ahead and you need to remain faithful to the only one who can get you through them! It’s not worth compromising! Jesus is the only one worth following! He’s the only one who can save, the only one who can break open what God has sealed and bring us through to the end.
“Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, ‘Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’” (Revelation 5:1-5)
We may not know exactly what’s going on there, but we do know one thing: Jesus is the only one, the only way, that has the right and the power to do what is necessary to save us.
The second reminder that we are supposed to get from this kind of writing in scripture is that we need to be ready. Jesus describes our current troubles as “birth-pangs” (13:8)– the pain before the big event. He says in verse 28 that what we are seeing is the branch getting ready to produce fruit. He is coming back, and there will be signs of His coming, but those signs aren’t meant to cause you fear or to distract you – they are meant to tell you to get ready. Over and over, along with all of the talk about what will happen, Jesus gives us warnings to be ready.
- Vs 5: “See that no one leads you astray.”
- Vs 9: “Be on your guard.”
- Vs 11: “Do not be anxious.”
- Vs 23: Be on your guard. I have told you all things beforehand.”
- Vs 33 “Be on guard, keep awake.”
- Vs 35: “Stay awake.”
- Vs 37: “Stay awake.”
Why does he say that over and over? Because we are all in danger of falling asleep. He will take a long time coming, and it will be easy to forget that He’s ever coming back, and therefore we will go to sleep. His final parable was a story about a man who goes on a journey, leaving his servants in charge. That’s Jesus. He ascended to heaven and left us to tend to His work. A diligent servant realizes his master might be home anytime and keeps the place clean, sets the table each night, prepares His food, and has the house ready for him. A poor servant does that for a time, but after too long starts to think the master will never come back – so they stop cleaning as much, they start to sleep in the masters bed, they treat it as their own, pretending to be the master of the house, and they sleep later and later into the day, they get lazy, and they sleep all the time instead of doing they work they are intended to do.
Until the master comes home. Then judgement has come.
That’s the second reminder: Stay awake. Continue to be ready. Keep proclaiming the Gospel. Keep enduring the great trials. Keep patiently waiting for the Master to come back. A lot of the New Testament is written to churches who are suffering or about to endure suffering. It’s part of the Christian life, and should not be a surprise. That’s why the book is there for us. To give us hope, wisdom, encouragement, correction, training and a reminder of all that has been done for us.
The Story of “It Is Well With My Soul”
In a moment we are going to sing the song, “It is Well with my Soul” which is a perfect ending for today’s service. Some people get sucked in by the false prophets, or start to obsess about the end times, because they lose hope. They see and experience bad news, and lose hope that this world has a purpose, and begin to wonder if their faith is worth all the suffering they are enduring. Maybe there’s a better way. Maybe there’s an easier path. Maybe God’s not in control anymore. Maybe Jesus has forgotten them. Maybe something’s gone wrong.
Let me close with the story of this important Hymn. I’m not sure where you are at this morning, but I know that there is a message for you here. The first verse says this:
“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul.”
This hymn was written by a man named Horatio Spafford in the year 1873. As a young man he met and married a young woman whom he loved, had 5 wonderful children, became a successful lawyer, and had invested heavily in Chicago’s real estate market. It’s easy to believe that a song called “It is well” would be penned by a man like this… happy and successful, rich and well known… but this song wasn’t written during that time in his life. And that’s what makes the message of this song so powerful.
After a few good years of success and happiness, Horatio’s life began to fall apart. First, his 4 year old son died of scarlet fever. Then a year later, the great Chicago Fire destroyed all of his real estate, ruining him financially. He was a believer in Jesus and, since he had nothing tying him to Chicago anymore, he decided to bring this family to Europe to help his friend Dwight L Moody with his missionary work. Unfortunately, he had to send his family on ahead while he stayed back to deal with some paperwork. While crossing the Atlantic, their ship collided with another vessel and all four of Spafford’s daughters fell overboard and were lost at sea. Only his wife Anna survived, telegraphing a letter back to Heratio about what had happened.
With a heavy heart Spafford boarded another ship to meet his wife across the ocean. During the voyage the Captain came to him and told him he knew what had happened to his family and that the ship was now passing over the spot where his daughters had passed away. He walked to deck of the ship, looking overboard at the water, and began to weep. For him, after so much tragedy, he wondered how he could ever go on. He watched the billows of water roll against the sides of the ship, and pictured his young daughters in his mind’s eye.
Everything was not “well with his soul”… and he began to pray. He turned to God for comfort and for help… and the Holy Spirit began to speak to him. In those moments Horatio Spafford was taught that God keeps His promises and He really does draw close to those who are broken hearted. He will not leave you, nor forsake you. He really is in control, even during the storms. He will see us all through to the end.
In response to God’s touch, the heart-broken, but Spiritually sustained, man wrote a poem, which later became a beloved hymn of the church, helping everyone who sings it remember the eternal hope that all believers have, no matter what pain and heartache may befall them on earth. He wrote:
“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul. Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, Let this blest assurance control,That Christ has regarded my helpless estate, And hath shed His own blood for my soul.”
No matter what happens in life, those who are in a relationship with Jesus are able to sing along with Mr. Spafford saying, “It is well, it is well, with my soul.”
Many people wonder where they I get real hope and comfort when they are “walking through the valley of the shadow of death”? How can I find a way for it to be “well with my soul”… “when sorrows like sea billows roll”? It almost sounds foolish to think that it can ever be “well” in a world where there are so many things going wrong.
But if our hope is in the things of the world, then it can never be well. A Christians hope isn’t in the world, or the things of the world, it is in the one who created the world, who sustains the world, who saved the world. The only way we can have peace in the middle of problems, suffering, fear and even death is because of Jesus Christ.
The most famous verse in the Bible tells the story of how Christians can say “it is well”. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” God loves you and me so much that he was willing to send His Son to save us. Jesus died so that anyone who puts their faith in Him would live forever with Him, have access to amazing grace and divine peace, and know true joy. He gives us that as we live with Him today, and will give it to us ultimately when He finishes His work and brings us all to Him in the final days. Jesus is our hope and our strength.
The last verse of “It is well” closes the song in a prayer that talks to God about that day. Today there is grief. Today there is loss and sickness and darkness, enemies and pain. But one day, for those of us who know Jesus Christ as our Saviour, all of that will be done with!
Horatio Spafford said it this way:
“And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, The clouds be rolled back as a scroll; The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend, Even so, it is well with my soul.”
So my conclusion today is to remind you of the message of all of scripture: that it’s all about Jesus. He is our source of strength and hope, our anchor in the storm, the motivation of our life, our Saviour and our Lord. He is the reason we are here, and the greatest pursuit of our life. He loves each of us, individually, with a great passion – so much so that He was willing to die on the cross for our sins.
No matter what occurs in our life, Jesus will see us through if we are willing to submit ourselves to Him. So listen to Him, read His word, talk to Him, study His life, obey His commands, follow His word, join His church, discover His purpose for your life and live it out, and trust that He will keep you, always.
The Joy of Bible Study
When I do Bible study (and perhaps this happens to you), I often have one of three experiences –each flowing from one to the next.
I usually start out by feeling like a hunter, an archaeologist, or a prospector… wandering about, fairly sure that there’s something good there, but not exactly sure where yet. So I take a few samples, smell the air, set up a camera, do some digging around … in other words, I read over the passage a few times, talk to God about it, mull it over, find a study bible or two and read the notes.
Then, I suddenly strike something. Sometimes it comes quickly, other times it takes a little while, but it always happens. Suddenly there’s a moment when something jumps off the page. I scout for long enough and find that set of tracks, that artefact, that nugget… and I start to dig. And that’s when my experience switches, I now become a miner.
I get out my shovels and pickaxes – fire up my commentaries, bible translations, dictionaries, studies, fact books, etc. and start to dig and dig to get under what I’ve just found. I want to know where it comes from, how it got there, what it’s made of, what it’s worth, what I can do with it… and it gets very exciting. That’s my favourite part.
Now, just to clarify my illustration, when I’m preaching through a book of the bible, like I am now, it’s not like I approach the verses with a specific idea in mind. That would be like showing up with a my own bones, some gold nuggets, or a bag of my own scat, spreading it around and calling it a sign. No, when we come to Bible Study, our job isn’t to pull things out of scripture, or worse, put things into it, but to simply find what God is saying and then listen to and teach that.
But, that’s not the end of the Bible Study journey for me. Now, maybe I’m alone in this one, but I assume I’m not. There’s usually a third part to my experience where I go from blissfully mining out truths to feeling like I’m drinking from a fire-hose. All of a sudden I realize, once again, that no matter what the truth is, God has been saying it to generations of people, over and over, for millennia.
I start to realize that when the Bible speaks, it speaks consistently with a voice that agrees with itself, that the Holy Spirit has declared every word of the Bible. I see Jesus in every verse, the mercy of God in every chapter, as the few verses I’m reading point to more and more verses in scripture – in Genesis, Proverbs, Psalms, the Prophets. As I learn the historical context of the verse I realize how important it was at the time, but how universal it is for all times.
Suddenly, the truth God wants to tell me that day, comes clear and I realize a few of its implications. I come face to face with my own sin, and the sin of the world around me, and how woefully short I fall in God’s eyes. I get a glimpse of Jesus’ true nature and realize how high and deep His mind is compared to mine. I start to realize that His ways are so much more different than mine, and that His thoughts are so much better than mine. And it gets overwhelming. I dig in and find there’s too much gold, too many jewels in the mine for one person to ever study or carry himself. Too many tracks to follow for even a thousand hunters to track. And it brings me to both elation and despair. Elation as I experience the living and active Word of God, sharper than any double-edges sword, penetrating and dividing my soul and spirit… and despair as I realize that I will never, ever be able to fully explain, even that one verse, in my whole lifetime. There’s too much there.
I hope you’ve experienced that. I get to do it all the time, and it’s the greatest part of being able to do what I do. Perhaps you’ve even experience a little of that on these past Sundays as we’ve gone through the Gospel of Mark together and you’ve studied at home.
So Many Hot Topics
I say all that because I feel like we’ve covered a lot of big, “hot-topics” over the past while. In a short time we’ve covered gender identity, homosexuality, submission to leadership, stewardship, keeping our relationships together, suffering and martyrdom – that’s a lot! Last week we covered the questions of “What is most important to God?”, “How do I find my life’s purpose?” and “How can I love people who make it hard to love them?” That’s enough to chew on for a lifetime, and here we are again about to cover something else!
I don’t think anyone would blame us if we feel a little overwhelmed by all the amazing things that Jesus spoke in the final days of His life. The questions come fast and furious, and when He answers them He doesn’t use long sermons and explanations, but short, powerful, bullet like answers, piercing straight to the heart of the issue. And so, when we read these sections, and try to take them more slowly, we invariably find that they are incredibly condensed.
Jesus Fires Back
That’s true about today’s passage too, of course, so let’s give it a read and see what God has for us today. First, notice that today’s passage is different than our last bunch in that it’s not motivated by a question asked by someone else, but comes about because Jesus decides to point it out Himself.
Remember last week where, in verse 34, Jesus had answered the Scribe’s question and “no one dared ask him any more questions.” After the Pharisees and Scribes stopped talking, Jesus went on a bit of a walking tour of the Temple area. It says in verse 37 that a “great throng”, or a “large crowd”, followed Him around, listening to His teaching, captivated by His every word – much to the annoyance and vexation of the Sanhedrin.
In our passage today, Jesus takes a walk from steps on which He had been confronted by the Sanhedrin a little further into, perhaps the Court of the Gentiles, the place that He had made quite the scene the day before. As He walks, He begins to speak and teach.
Let’s read from Mark 12:38:
“And in his teaching he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’ (Mark 12:38-40)
What we are reading here is a summary, a condensed version, of what Matthew 23 calls the “Seven Woes to the Scribes and Pharisees”, which is a much more lengthy and specific indictment of Israel’s teachers. There, the phrase he repeats over and over is the word “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”, and then calls them out for burdening people with extreme rules that go far beyond God’s law, for their belief that they are above others, for their two-facedness and total lack of understanding of their place before God, for their lack of care for the poor, for their narcissistic, shallow, superficial, conceited, vanity, and the hate they had in their hearts for God and His Christ. It’s an extremely powerful, entire chapter of scripture that Mark condenses into a few verses.
Here you see vain men who walk from place to place clothed in the garb of aristocrats, white, flowing robes symbolizing their religious purity. They were meant to be work during religious duties, but these leaders had taken to wearing them all the time, even in the marketplaces, to remind people how important they were. They would seek out crowds of people, in synagogues and feasts, and expect special treatment for who they were. They loved the perks that came with the job.
And they had a lot of power, which they would use to abuse people. A scribe was forbidden from being paid for their teachings, so they had to either support themselves with a secular job – like the Apostle Paul did as a tentmaker – or be dependent upon the gifts of others. This situation easily led them to start to expect gifts whenever they would teach, which led to finding out which were the most generous / gullible of those they were meant to be helping. Like the bad lawyers and religious shysters today, they would ingratiate themselves to some of the widows, hoping to get into their wills, or look for loop-holes in the law which would allow them to take over people’s possessions. This was especially effective against defenceless widows who had no one to advocate them – because they were the ones abusing them.
Picture lawyers, walking around the grocery stores, church groups, potlucks, restaurants – always clad in their best power-suit. Attending funerals and looking for grieving, trusting, people who are in mourning, passing out business cards, using their charisma and knowledge to steal their homes, take their money, and leaving them destitute.
Is it any wonder Jesus says, “They will receive the greater condemnation.”
The Widow’s Offering
As Jesus is walking and teaching, firing back at the Sanhedrin that had blocked His way to the Temple and tried to trap Him with questions, He’s making His way to the Court of the Women. There stood a series of boxes with trumpet shaped tops for people to place various offerings and their temple taxes. There He will sit down and make another, extremely important point.
“And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’” (Mark 12:38-44)
Jesus sits and turns his eyes towards the contribution chests, the trumpets, and for a time he says nothing. It’s the Passover and Jerusalem is at its busiest, and there are a lot of people paying their taxes, and making the required and voluntary offerings to God. The whole crowd with Him watches person after person come to the box and drop in their offering.
The trumpets are made of metal and each coin that goes in makes a clanging noise – and there are some people that make a lot of noise! I remember reading at one point that some people would have their offering turned into even more coins so they could be seen – and heard – pouring more and more into the noisy receptacle. Some even throwing their coins into the coffers from a distance – for maximum clang!
Notice the contrast between these two stories. In the first we have Jesus giving a warning and a description of the Scribe. “Beware the Scribes” — the hypocrites, the play actors, the religious pretenders, the ones who loved the show, but were just white-washed-tombs, dead looking good on the outside, but dead and disgusting on the inside (Matthew 23:27-28).
Then He points to the polar opposite: a poor widow, beneath anyone’s notice. She’s poor, which means she, likely, doesn’t have anyone taking care of her. No family, no help, n protector, no social services, no legal recourse. Was she a victim of one of the Scribe’s – we don’t know – but we do know that she is in extreme need.
She has come to the Temple humbly, without advertisement, in obedience to God’s call to give, in need, with an absolute trust in God. How do I know this? Because Jesus says she put in two small coins, two LEPTA, one 64th of a day’s wages, and it was all she had.
A little math and conversion says: If the minimum wage in Ontario is $11.25, and one works an 8 hour day, then they have $90. Divide that by 64 and you have $1.40. By today’s standards, this poor widow had less than a Twoonie to her name.
It was too small to be the Temple Tax, and must have been put in the box for the voluntary gifts. This was a gift given out of both obedience and love. She didn’t have to put both coins in. She could have kept one. She needed to bring an offering, and she looked at her coins, and knew that she needed God’s blessing a lot more than she needed that single coin.
Now we make the contrast. Jesus pronounced judgement and doom on the rich scribe, who looked amazing in the outside, had wealth, connections, a fancy degree, got the best seats to all the events, and was respected by all the elites in the city. And He commends the widow for giving to God, willingly.
But it’s not about the money, it’s about the heart! Jesus calls over His disciples and says, “this poor widow put in more than all those who are contributing…”. How was it more? Because everyone else had given out of their riches – and she gave out of her poverty, she gave it all.
It’s not about the amount we give. God couldn’t care less about the amount, because He doesn’t need any of it. God owns everything and wants for nothing. He can raise people out of mud. He invented gold and jewels. It’s not about God wanting our riches – He wants our heart. And the Widow’s very small gift proved that she loved God, needed God, thanked God, obeyed God, and trusted God more than she trusted anyone or anything else.
She gave beyond what was convenient, beyond what was safe, beyond what was expected, and gave it all. It was one of the few – perhaps the only – gift accepted by God that day. Sure, the contribution boxes were full, but there were only two little coins that God found value in – the Widow’s offering. She gave “all she had to live on”, literally translated, “her whole life”.
Those wealthy Scribes foolishly thought that riches were something to be accumulated on earth, and spent their life amassing them. The Widow knew that there was more to life than having a coin in her hands. The Scribes found security in their wealth and used their power to crush anyone who they could. The Widow found her security in God, knowing that He is the highest authority.
Let me draw a couple applications here:
The first is that we must get our priorities straight.
This is an old application, but it’s relevant to every age. We talked about “Loving God” and “Loving our Neighbour” last week, and we get a very similar reminder this week. We have to ask ourselves what our priorities are, because if they don’t line up with God’s, then we are in trouble: trouble in facing God’s judgement for disobedience, and trouble in not being able to flourish under His rule.
If we have the priorities of the Scribes: Pride, Position, Power, Prestige, Wealth, Worldly security, then we have it all wrong. And this is where it starts to feel like drinking from a fire-hose, because every book of the Bible condemns this life. It doesn’t condemn the wealthy, but the love of wealth.
- Jesus in Matthew 6:24 says, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
- The Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 6:10 says, “…the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”
- The Apostle John in 1 John 2:15 says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”
- The author of the Proverbs (30:8) begs God to give him enough, but no more saying, “…give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.” and, in it’s wisdom, looks square at us and simply says, “Do not toil to acquire wealth; be discerning enough to desist.” (23:4)
- The Psalmist says, “For the wicked boasts of his heart’s desire, And the greedy man curses and spurns the LORD.” (10:3)
Seeking wealth and worldly security is absolutely incompatible with loving God and others. A life committed to pursuing gain and comfort, dependant on appearances and applause, will always, always, always corrupt one’s soul, distract them from God, and cause them to use people rather than serve them.
The second is to answer the question: “What are you holding back?”
We see a picture of Jesus in the Widow. She trusts God, obeys at great cost, and gives her life for the sake of others. That’s Jesus.
The Widow put in two coins, though she could have kept one. Jesus gave His whole life to save us.
- What are you holding back?
- What have you not given God permission to have in your life?
- What has God asked you to do and you’ve said no?
- Is there something you are supposed to do, to give, to trust God with, that you are still holding in your hands, keeping control of, because you simply can’t trust him with it?
- Are you tithing? Are you giving generously to the work of God, first at church and then to other people who need it? Or are you refusing to obey God in that way?
- What about your daily obedience in bible reading and prayer? Are you holding back your time from God because you believe it’s yours? Do you give God a little time, when you find it, and have nothing better to do?
- Is there a sin or a habit that you know you’ve needed to give up, but won’t?
Jesus has terrible words to say to religious pretenders who look like they have it all put together, but are, in fact, corrupt on the inside. He calls them “Hypocrites!” Let us be free from hypocrisy and give God everything, no holding back.
What are you holding back from God?
Our current mini-series has been covering the questions that Jesus was asked as He entered the Temple the day after He cleared the Temple courts by driving people out, overturning tables and releasing the animals. As He came up the stairs he was confronted by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, who had some questions about his motives, and had hopes of publically embarrassing Him and trapping Him in His own worlds. They wanted Him gone, and if they could get him to publically admit that He believed Himself to be the Messiah – or better yet, God, and then accuse Him of blasphemy and arrest Him. Or, if they could get Him to say that He was doing these things by His own authority they could accuse Him of being the crazy leader of an insurgence, a megalomaniacal fanatic, who the Romans needed to arrest and kill as a rabble rouser and a traitor.
None of their plans worked, of course, and they end up walking away dejected and angry, bewildered as to what they will do about Jesus – until Judas comes to them offering to sell out Jesus so they can arrest Him in the middle of the night only a few days later.
The Final and Biggest Question
“And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, ‘Which commandment is the most important of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.’ And the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.’” (Mark 12:28-34)
The last question Jesus is asked is an ironic one. It’s ironic because it comes from, what appears to be a good guy! After rafts of men came trying to embarrass and trap Jesus, one man comes up in the midst of the fray and asks Jesus a question that wasn’t manipulative or loaded – but genuine. It says that this scribe – who was basically a lawyer – was sitting on the periphery listening to the conversations and was very impressed with Jesus answers. He came to Jesus after “seeing that he answered them well”. By Jesus’ own admission this man was “not far from the kingdom of God” so perhaps that means His journey to find God’s will had finally led him to Jesus.
This last question is a great last question because it is the most important one of all. And, funnily enough, it comes on the heels of a really dumb question about a woman who was widowed seven times and who would be her husband in the afterlife. Even Jesus says that they ask a dumb question.
But after telling them how dopey their question was, Jesus turns around and sees a man standing there with a very important question: “Which commandment is the most important of all?”
This sounds like a no-brainer to us, but that’s only because we’ve heard the answer so many times. When this scribe asked Jesus, they had identified 613 separate commandments they believed God wanted them to obey, 365 of which were negative (do nots) and 248 of which were positive (do this). They had even divided them into “heavy” and “light,” commands, ranked by which ones were more important and less important. So, seeing that Jesus knew what He was talking about, the scribe brought this important, and relevant, question.
Jesus is more than happy to give the answer, but He does so in a special way. He takes two of the items on their list of 613 and joins them. They were normally separate, from different scriptures in different locations, but Jesus joined them together. Jesus’ view of the Law of God wasn’t about lists, but about lifestyle of love.
The first part of His answer is of no surprise to anyone. It is the first part of the “Shema”, a quotation from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the centrepiece prayer of Jewish life, said in the morning and evening every day:
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”
This was a reminder to all that the love of God is based on His oneness, His singularity, His exclusivity – He is the Only One. Since God is one, our love for Him must be undivided. This is repeated in the first commandment: “You shall have no other God’s before me.” (Exodus 20:3)
It piles up the terms “heart,” “soul,” and “mind” and “strength” reminding us that God doesn’t just want part of us, but our whole being. God wants to the be the greatest, all-consuming love of our life. Why? Because He is our Lord and our God – He alone.
The second of Jesus’ answers comes immediately after, without a pause: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Later 1 John 4:20-21 explains how these commandments are tied together:
“If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
These are not two commands, but one. God loves us, and in response we love God… and that love flows from Him to Us to Others. We don’t have one or the other. We cannot love God and hate people – that’s incompatible, even if we sometimes wish it wasn’t.
True Love Hurts Sometimes
We do, don’t we? Sometimes we really wish that we could just say, “I love God, love Jesus, love my family, and love my church… but the rest of everyone can go to heck.” We’ve all thought it. Why? Because loving people is hard. People make it hard to love them sometimes.
The kind of love that Jesus is talking about, the one that loves our neighbour, is a sacrificial love. It requires sacrifice and commitment, a denial of self, a picking up of our cross and following Him, living as a disciple of Christ.
We sometimes think that “taking up our cross” (Matthew 16:24-26) means facing persecution and martyrdom, being killed for our faith and our love for Jesus. And sometimes it does, but we have to remember how Jesus said it. He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” That means we stop living for ourselves and live the way that Jesus lived.
It means that we define love the way that Jesus does. It means we expand our love beyond ourselves, beyond those we love, beyond just us and God –deny ourselves and choose to love the people that God puts in our lives, even the ones that make it hard to do. That is a Christ like, sacrificial thing to do.
In books, movies and tv shows we are presented with only one kind of love – love that feels good and comes easily. And, thank God, that’s true sometimes. It’s usually pretty easy to love babies, our own children, our friends, our parents… people that are kind, generous, helpful, and nice. Those people are easy to love. But that’s only one side of love. Sometimes love hurts.
Many in our western world today have bought into this one side of love. If you feel love towards someone, and it’s easy, and you’re swept off your feet, and it gets all misty and gushy when the person is around – that’s love. But when that person becomes hard to love, when the feelings leave, when they hurt you, when they disappoint you, when they stop loving you – or when you start having gushy feelings for someone else – then you are no longer in love and it’s time to go somewhere else. That’s not love, that’s using people. Real love is different.
Loving Like Jesus
Real love sometimes involves suffering. Real love sometimes hurts really bad. Real love requires a decision, commitment, and fortitude. The Bible defines love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 saying:
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
That is not emotional language – those are words of decision.
I choose to be patient when the one I love keeps messing up. I choose to be kind when the person is unkind. I choose to be love others that are better off than I am. I choose to not say rude things and place myself before the one I love. I choose to forgive and not hold resentment. I will bear with them. I will believe in them. I will hope for them. I will endure suffering with them. I will finish my life loving them. True love requires hard choices and sometimes feels like suffering.
Just as Jesus’ love for His Father and for us meant that He had to take up His cross so He could suffer and die – so sometimes it is required of us to pick up our cross, obey God, and suffer and die as we love our neighbours as ourselves.
Jesus blows the doors off of “one sided love” when He teaches that God’s version of love goes beyond our family and those who are easy to love, but extends to difficult people – even those who treat us badly! He says:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38-48)
Jesus injunction to “perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” brings us full circle to the question that the scribe asked Jesus. The scribe asked, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” That’s another way of saying, “If God had only one thing to say, what would He say? What does God want from us most? What is the most fundamental, most central, most critical thing in the universe?” It could almost be restated, “How can we be perfect like God is perfect?” The answer Jesus gave was to love God with our whole being and to have that love spill over onto the people around us – even when it hurts.
“Eye for an eye” makes sense to us. “Turn the other cheek” doesn’t. Jesus says, if someone hurts you, do not answer hatred for hatred, but love instead. If someone has it out for you and wants to take revenge even after you’ve tried to work it out, answer their vengeance with generosity. Value your hard earned things less then people who you don’t even know! Pray for people that hurt you. The great reward of love, true love, comes as you love those who don’t love you back.
Finding Our Purpose
People are always worried about their purpose. Anyone who has been on the planet for more than 3 years is often asked “What are you going to be when you grow up?” and the question never seems to end. Just this week I heard of an older man, almost a hundred years old, who was asking about his purpose in life.
Everyone wants to know their purpose and they ask, “God what do you want me to do? Where do you want me to go? What is the plan for my life?”. The answer if far more clear than they want to believe – but they resist because it’s not specific enough.
Look at what happens in the passage we’re looking at today. Someone walks up to Jesus and basically asks, “What’s the most important thing God wants me to know?” That’s a big question! And then notice that Jesus’ answer is phrased as a command: “And You Shall…” Older translations will say “Thou Shalt!… love the Lord your God… ” “Thou shalt! Love your neighbour.”
God’s answer to “what should I do with myself” and “what is my purpose” is that we start there. If you want to know your purpose, ask yourself this question: Am I constantly showing love for God and others? Start with that, and I promise that the rest will flow naturally.
God says, “Love me with all your heart, soul mind and strength AND love your neighbours as much as you love yourself… and then the rest will come together.”
Consider what Jesus said in Matthew 6 when he shoots down all the people who want specific answers:
“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ [or Where shall I go? What should my job be? What school should I attend? What about the future? What about this issue, or that problem, or that opportunity…] For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:31-33)
We hear Jesus saying, “Hold on, hold on! Before you worry about all the detailed wither-tos and why-fors of your life, let’s get the first things first. Do you love God and the people around you?” Are you “seeking first the kingdom and His righteousness?”. That’s like asking, “As a citizen of the Kingdom of God, are you doing what is most important to the King?” Which, again, brings us back around to the same answer as before: Are you loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul mind and strength and loving your neighbour as yourself?
Loving Our Neighbour
The priority of getting this right first is the consistent testimony of scripture. So let’s do a little application and see what this looks like practically, and we’ll work back to front: First, what does loving our neighbour look like? It’s actually pretty simple, when you think about it for a minute.
Jesus gave us the answer in Matthew 7:12 with what we call the Golden Rule:
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
“I don’t know how to love others! I’m not a very loving person! I don’t know where to start!” we say. Jesus’ answer to that is, “Start here: Can you look inside and ask yourself, ‘How would I want people to treat me?’” Of course, we all can! For example:
When you are depressed, what do you want people to do for you? Think about it. Do you want them to leave you alone in your dark room with your dark thoughts, sinking deeper and deeper? Or do you want them to keep calling you, keep caring about you, keep inviting you, keep showing up and reminding you that they love you and that God loves you? Do that to others.
When you are new to a place, what do you want people to do for you? Judge you by how you’re dressed, how you talk, your family situation, and ask you about all of your obvious problems? Probably not. You want them to love you for who you are, be kind, introduce you to the group, and cut you some slack. Do that to others.
When you are struggling with sin or addiction, what do you want people to do for you? Pretend it doesn’t exist, never ask you about it, leave you alone to wallow in your muck, falling into it over and over again? Or, come along side you, get involved in your mess, ask how they can help, love you in your failings and hold you accountable, forgiving you when you blow it again… but never giving up on you. Do that to others.
When you are blind to your own pride, greed, rudeness, argumentativeness, and are offending people and losing friends – but have no idea why, what do you want people to do for you? Make excuses for you, avoid confronting you, or just avoid you alotgether, and let you self-destruct all your relationships? No, you want them to take you aside, buy you a coffee, ask what’s wrong, why you’re lashing out, and then tell you gently, but truthfully, that you are hurting people – and say that no matter how bad it gets, they’ll still with you. Do that for others.
When your marriage is on the rocks, or your kids are a mess, what do you want people to do? Mock you behind your back, criticize you to others, spread gossip about you, and stand around hoping it’ll finally blow up in your face so they can watch the fireworks? No… you want them to come along side you, weep with you, put their arm around you, understand that you are struggling – that you’re not blind but you are at the end of your rope and have no idea what to do – to be a friend, trustworthy confidant, and prayer partner. Do that for others.
If you are struggling with your weight, what do you want people to do? Make jokes about you, leave clothing store coupons and Weight Watchers pamphlets around, suggest diet plans, and heap shame on you because you obviously don’t know that you have a problem? No. You want them to love you for who you are and care more about your insides than your outsides – and then, maybe, after becoming really, really good friends, and you’ve talked about lots and lots of topics… offer to walk with you in your struggle.
If you have a handicap, what do you want people to do? Exclude you because you’re too much trouble? No. You want them to help you become part of what’s going on.
It goes on and on and on. And it’s really not that hard to figure out if we just take a minute to think about it. And having God on our side, and the ability to pray and ask for direction, means that the Holy Spirit will speak to us and help us to do this even better!
It’s All About Jesus
So how do we grow in love for others – even our enemies? It comes back to Jesus’ first answer: We love God. Remember, it’s all about Jesus. You will love God when you understand the love that He has for you, even when you were His enemy. His love was shown in what He did in Jesus Christ.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?…. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”(Romans 8:31-39 [see also Romans 5:6-11])
Once you begin to understand the love of God for you found in Jesus Christ – how enormous, how sacrificial, how beautiful and perfect it is – then you will be able to love your neighbour sacrificially, beautifully, and with a greater depth than you ever thought you had in you.
Growing Our Love Muscles
That’s why the fathers of our faith have always emphasized consistent scripture reading, prayer, and worship as indispensable to the Christian life.
Reading scripture reminds our feeble and forgetful minds about the depth of God’s love and about how He wants us to live in this world. It tells us about how far He came to save us, what He saved us from, and the loving boundaries He set around us so we can flourish under His rule.
Prayer connects us to the very heart of God. That consistent, daily, hourly, relationship, allows us to go beyond a mere intellectual understanding of our faith and to realize we have a living, breathing, existential, relationship with a real person. As we pray, meditate and listen, we experience the presence of God, the love of Christ, the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Daily worship, and faithful attendance to Sunday Worship, reminds us of our place in the universe – that He’s God and we’re not. And reminds us that though He is Holy God, He’s not a distant God. Our singing, giving, obedience, fellowship, evangelism, service, thanksgiving, and religious activity all remind us that God interacts with us as our Creator, Sustainer, Saviour, and Friend. Worship deepens our love for God.
If we are going to be people love others, then we must start by loving God.
A Reminder to Our Souls
Let me close by reading Psalm 103. In Psalm 103 David does something that we all need to do sometimes; He reminds himself why God is worthy of our love, and why he needs to keep worshipping God – and how that is the foundation for everything else. Let this be a reminder to our spirits as well:
“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel. The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.
As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.
Bless the LORD, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word! Bless the LORD, all his hosts, his ministers, who do his will! Bless the LORD, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the LORD, O my soul!” (Psalm 103:1-5 ESV)
Today we’re going to study Mark 7:31-8:33. At first these stories are going to seem disconnected, but as we read them, hopefully you will see a theme developing. I also want you to listen for similar phrases and events. It’s set up as a sort of sandwich where we see a couple of similar events, and then something different, and then a couple of similar events.
Top of the Sandwich: Ears to Hear
“Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’ And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.’” (Mark 7:31-37)
So there’s the first section. What did we see? Jesus goes somewhere, meets someone in need, Jesus looks to heaven to pray, heals that person with a sigh at the hard heartedness of the people and the effects of sin on humanity, and tells them to keep it quiet after performing the miracle. Let’s move on to the next event, which happens a few days later.
“In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, ‘I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.’ And his disciples answered him, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?’ And he asked them, ‘How many loaves do you have?’ They said, ‘Seven.’ And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away.” (Mark 8:1-9)
Ok, so what do we see there? Another display of power. This time Jesus goes somewhere, sees the need (rather than having the need brought to him), deals with the unbelief and sin of the disciples (I wonder if he sighed here too), prays, and works the miracle. That’s section one. Two displays of power a similar and simple theme: Jesus can work amazing miracles.
The Middle of the Sandwich: Deaf Ears and Blind Eyes
Now we move to section two, the middle of the sandwich – the bacon of the sandwich, the reason for the existence of the sandwich!
“And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha. The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.’ And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.” (Mark 8:10-13)
So here, Jesus goes somewhere and comes across a group with hard hearts and no faith. This group of Pharisees likely wasn’t around for the previous miracles, but they had heard of Jesus’ reputation and came to “argue” with, and request miracles from Jesus. “Show us! Let us see with our own eyes” they demand. Now, with that in our minds, let’s read the next section:
“Now they [that is, the disciples] had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, ‘Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.’ And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, ‘Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?’ They said to him, ‘Twelve.’ ‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?’ And they said to him, ‘Seven.’ And he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’” (Mark 8:14-21)
Do you see similarities? Jesus goes somewhere, but this time the group that has hard hearts and low faith are his disciples. Unlike the Pharisees, they had witnessed the miracles, and yet still didn’t understand the truth about Jesus. Our Key Verse for this whole section is found in verses 17-18, and they shine light on the rest of the whole section: “Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember?” Do you not see? Do you not hear? Do you not understand? Hopefully you’re seeing the connection. If not, you will after we read the next section.
The Bottom of the Sandwich: Jesus Gives Sight
“And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Do you see anything?’ And he looked up and said, ‘I see people, but they look like trees, walking.’ Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. And he sent him to his home, saying, ‘Do not even enter the village.’” (Mark 8:22-26)
Jesus performs another miracle where he takes someone who has a blockage of perception – before it was hearing, now it’s sight – and performs a miracle so they can see. And He goes through a similar pattern as with the deaf/mute, though this time it takes two steps.
Now, from the context, we’re beginning to see that Jesus healing the deaf and the blind is about far deeper than merely restoring earing and eyesight. This blind man is a picture of what Jesus wants to do for His disciples, and for all of us. He wants His followers to see – but, like the man, though they have been touched by Jesus, at first, they are only seeing dimly… blurrily… a little bit of light, but not enough to understand what’s really going on.
And how do we know that? Because of the final section:
“And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they told him, ‘John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.’ And he asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Christ.’ And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’” (Mark 8:27-33)
Peter is our great example here. Peter was like the blind man, unable to see. Then He met Jesus, and began to see something… that Jesus was the Christ… but Peter wasn’t seeing clearly yet. How do we know? Because of what Peter did next – he rebukes Jesus for talking about his crucifixion! “You’re the Christ, Jesus! You’ll never suffer! You’ll conquer!”
Like the blind man, Peter saw a little light about Jesus, but his spiritual vision was still blurry. He needed more from Jesus in order to understand the rest of the truth about Jesus. And that would come after the Crucifixion and Resurrection, on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples and they finally understood all that Jesus said.
Two Blind Groups
Hopefully I’ve explained well enough the connections throughout this section. Deaf and Blind people meeting Jesus and needing healing. But it’s more than physical blindness and deafness that Jesus has come to heal – it’s spiritual blindness and deafness. Jesus shows He has the supernatural power to overcome any kind of perception problem, and goes even farther to show He can provide food out of thin air for thousands of people.
But then, in the middle of these stories of healing, we see two groups that are both presented with Jesus’ claims and evidence of His power — but who react very differently to them: The Disciples and the Pharisees.
The Disciples saw miracle after miracle, had heard message after message, and had seen bread come out of nowhere to feed thousands – and yet, as they sat in the boat, when Jesus began to teach them in a parable saying, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” They completely missed it. They thought they were in trouble for forgetting to bring lunch. They thought Jesus was hungry and wanted food. They showed their complete lack of ability to perceive spiritual things – they were stuck in the physical realm.
Jesus rebukes them:
“Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember?” (Mark 8:17-18)
“Guys! I just miraculously provided thousands of people with bread, and you were left with baskets and baskets of it! Do you really think that I’m mad at you for not bringing enough lunch? Do you really think I’m telling you to beware of the actual, physical bread that the Pharisees make?!?!”
They’d seen so much, but they’d forgotten and couldn’t see the truth about Jesus. Were they really unwilling to believe that Jesus would provide bread to them? Their shortsighted, small minded, easily forgetful ways, showed they were like the deaf man – unable to hear what Jesus was saying. They were just like the blind man – unable to see what was happening right before their eyes. At least the deaf man knew he was deaf and needed Jesus to help him hear.
Jesus kept His disciples around, showing them miracle after miracle, sharing teaching after teaching, giving them example after example, answering question after question… training them to have faith in Him. They wrestled with unbelief for years as they walked with Jesus… but eventually, after they had walked with Him for a while, witnessed His Resurrection, and were touched by His Holy Spirit, they became men of strong faith.
The other group, however, didn’t. The other group that we see in the bacon of these stories is the Pharisees. Like the Disciples, they are also deaf and blind – but they don’t know it. They’re bumbling around, unable to see spiritual truths, hurting themselves and others in their ignorance. Like a deaf person, they shout out unintelligible nonsense that sounds right to them, but is just noise. They are presented with the same evidences, the same Jesus, the same claims, and are given the same opportunity to follow.
The Pharisees had heard of Jesus’ reputation, and may have even witnessed some miracles – at the very least they knew of Jesus’ reputation from many witnesses – but they didn’t come to seek light and truth or to ask questions and listen to Jesus. Why did they come? 8:11 says, “The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him.”
The difference is their attitude. No matter what Jesus would have said, they hadn’t come to listen, they came to talk. They were deaf. No matter what Jesus would have shown them, they wouldn’t have seen it, because they had their blinders on.
It reminds me of when the Deacon Stephen was martyred by this same group of people. These are the last words of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and they are addressed to the Sanhedrin:
“‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.’”
[Now look at their reaction.]
“Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him.” (Acts 7:51-58)
They, like the Pharisees who had come to Jesus that day, weren’t there to listen, but to argue, make demands, condemn and test. They put themselves above Jesus, as His judges. He needed to prove Himself to them! They were the experts. They were the holy ones. They were the ones who knew God – and they expected Jesus to toe the line.
How to Deal with Unbelief
We all struggle with doubts and unbelief at times – some more than others. Even the most faithful Christian has moments when they wonder about what God is doing. We all ask questions like, “God, do you still love me? Are you in control of this? Will you help me? Do you hate me? Is this in your plan? Where are you? Can I trust you with this difficult thing? Are you worthy of putting my faith in, or will you let me down? ” We all have moments of doubt.
The question is how we respond. The difference between the Disciples and the Pharisees, though they both struggled with blindness and deafness, was that one group had a relationship with Jesus and the other didn’t. One had been chosen by Jesus and was willing to stick with Him. They kept walking with Him, paying attention to Him, seeking after Him, waiting for Him, asking Him questions, talking to Him. And their wiliness to do that meant they continued to see miracles, hear from Jesus, and were mightily used by God.
The Pharisees didn’t walk with Jesus. They came to argue with and test Jesus. They wanted Him to submit to them. They wanted God to bend to them – and therefore, even after meeting Jesus, they still walked away blind.
I guess the key word that describes that attitude is humility. Both groups were messed up. Both were blind. Both didn’t understand what Jesus was doing. But only one of the groups were willing to humbly walk with Jesus as their Lord. The disciples didn’t demand Jesus prove Himself, they just walked with Jesus wherever He went and saw Him in action. They got the proof, but not on their terms.
The Pharisees came at their own convenience, ordered Jesus to do things for them, and when He didn’t, they walked away. One group showed humble discipleship, the other arrogant presumption.
Sometimes we hear people say things like, “If God is real, why doesn’t He just show Himself! If God wants me to believe in Him, then He can just write it in the sky. Just one little miracle and I’ll believe Him. If God wants me to follow Him, then He’ll do this one thing for me. God, I’ll make a deal with you, I’ll start praying if you work this miracle.”
God wouldn’t be much of a god, if He performed like a trained seal and submitted to the whims of His creation, would He? God doesn’t operate like that. He shows Himself to people who come to Him in humble faith, in need, who desire truth, and who are willing to submit to Him as their God! God doesn’t submit to people who come demanding a performance.
We Experience Jesus in Different Ways
That being said, God is amazingly willing to meet us where we’re at and perform miracles for we who don’t deserve it. Like in the scriptures we’ve read today, different people meet Him in different ways, and God does some amazing things for them. But there’s a common theme behind all of these folks that met Jesus.
Jesus said as much in Matthew 13:44-46 where He said:
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
You see, we don’t create our own treasure, God does — and we all come across it a little differently. Some people are like the man who stumbles across it. The somehow come across Jesus – maybe through their parents, or a friend, or a vision, or another way they didn’t go looking for – and Jesus opens their eyes, their ears and frees their tongue to worship Him.
Other people are like the man searching for pearls – they look all their life for that one, great treasure, and when they meet Jesus they completely sell out to Him. They’ve searched and now they’ve found.
The deaf man and the blind man were brought to Jesus to be healed. They didn’t get there by themselves. The treasure was found by others. And all of the 4000 people that Jesus fed that day didn’t ask for it, Jesus just had compassion on them and fed them. We meet and experience Jesus in different ways.
Their healing was unique too. Many people had been brought to Jesus, but these are the only ones we read about where Jesus uses spit – and in the Gospel of John we read that he made mud from the spit – and used it to heal the person. No one seems to know why Jesus did that, but we can take away from it that – for whatever reason – Jesus uses different methods to meet different people’s needs.
Jesus healed the leper by laying on hands. The Centurion’s servant and the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter was healed form a distance. We don’t know why, but Jesus uses different methods on different people.
That’s part of the lesson of humility too, isn’t it? We come to Jesus, like the blind man, the deaf man, the disciples – humbly following and hoping for something – and then we allow Jesus to do it however He wants. Or, we try to come to Jesus like the Pharisees, demanding Jesus do it our way, in our time, using our methods. Jesus doesn’t respond to that. He responds to humility.
Sometimes Jesus chooses to heal immediately and fully. I just heard someone tell me this week about an addiction they had that God cured like that. Boom! One minute they couldn’t put it down, the next they couldn’t pick it up.
Sometimes God uses a little spit and mud to get it done. We need to take the medicine, go through training, work through the suffering, get dirty, face the temptation every day, exist in that situation for a while.
Sometimes, as we learned from the blind man, Jesus heals in stages. What we might call – progressive healing. We know that’s true spiritually. It’s something we call “progressive sanctification” the process of living our lives in such a way that we get closer to God and more like Jesus every day. 1 Corinthians 13:12 says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” In this world we don’t really understand everything. Christians experience and understand many things we didn’t before we met Jesus, but we don’t know it all yet – which is why we struggle with doubt sometime. But we’re only in the first stage of healing.
Sometimes Jesus heals us in stages too. Sometimes we need to bear the burden for a little while, see dimly, and only get – what we see as – part of the miracle. The question is: Are you willing to humbly submit to following Jesus where He wants to go, do what He wants to do, in His timing, healing you as He sees fit, in the way He sees fit? Because that’s how we experience the presence of Jesus.
Let me conclude with these thoughts. We’re all deaf and blind sometimes, and we know people who are deaf and blind to the things of God – but Jesus has the power to break through that blindness and give us light. He can break through the deafness so we can hear His voice. He can unbridle our tongue so we can speak the truth.
Jesus is the only one who can break through spiritual blindness and deafness. We can’t demand it of Him, but we can ask. God’s hand of grace moves when we humble ourselves before Him. If we want God to prove Himself, trade miracles for faith, and submit Himself to our wills, we will be sorely disappointed. He doesn’t play that game. He’s God, we’re not. Satan does play that game, however. He’s happy to give you enough rope to let you hang yourself. God doesn’t want that. He wants the best for you, and He wants you to realize that He knows what is best – and He gives you the ability to choose whether you will trust Him.
If you want to experience the power of God, then come to Him in humility and faith, trusting He knows what is better, with confidence in His love, His sovereignty, His compassion and His power. Remember who you are talking to.
And Remember what He has said. He said to the disciples, “Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember?”
Let us be the ones who remember!
We ask, “God do you love me?”
He responds, “Of course! Don’t you remember that I sent my son to die for you?”
We ask “Are you in control?”
He responds, “Yes, I’ve shown my faithfulness to you already, and I’ve proven that my thoughts are higher than your thoughts, my ways are higher than your ways. (Isaiah 55:8-9) Remember that I know what I’m doing.”
We ask, “Will you help me?”
He responds, “Yes, and I already have. Remember that I’m with you. I’ve given you every breath you’ve ever taken, and the strength for every step you’ve ever made. I’ve promised never to leave you. I’ve promised to give you all you need to do everything you need to do. Just follow me and I’ll lead you where you need to be.”
The Story of the Reluctant Doctor
Once upon a time there was a doctor of medicine. This doctor was somewhat controversial, in that, though his patients were cured, he used extremely unconventional, even odd ways to cure them – he also had a bit of a mouth on him. He tended to offend people when he spoke, to the point where the city officials and other doctors began to dislike him. At one point he said some things so offensive that they chased him out of town. He left and went all the way to the border, stepped across, taking his staff and his special medicines with him.
He found a house to stay in, but he knew he wasn’t supposed to practice medicine in another country, so he sat in the home, teaching his medical students. One day there was a knock at the door.
A young woman had heard that he had come to their country and was desperate to find him. She had a very sick little daughter who needed him. She’d tried all the doctors of her country and no one could help, but she had heard of this man’s amazing ways and was desperate for him to come and try.
She banged on the door, yelling for him to come out. “Please, I need you help! My daughter is very sick.” The doctor heard from the inside – and did nothing. She kept banging on the door. She looked through windows and saw that he was there – and when they met eyes, he got up and moved to a different room. She wouldn’t relent. She knew that he was her last hope.
She banged on the door even harder, wailing and weeping, calling for the doctor to come and help.
The doctor got up silently, looked at his medical students, and walked out the back door. He had decided to go home. The woman didn’t see him leave, but when she looked through all the windows in the house, she realized it was deserted, and began to run down the road in the hopes of catching him.
Finally, she saw him on the horizon and called out, “Please, help me!” She ran with all her might to catch him, and threw herself down at His feet so he couldn’t take another step. Panting and out of breath, she coughed out the words, “Please… please help me. You’re the only one that can heal my daughter.”
The medical students had had enough. Some were sick of her noise, others were moved to compassion, but they all began to ask the doctor to help the woman’s daughter so she would stop crying and leave them.
The doctor looked down at the woman at his feet, and said, “Why should I help a dog like you? You’re not even from my country. I am saving my medicine to use on my people first.”
She replied, “I may be a dog… but even dogs get to eat scraps from the table. All I’m asking for are some scraps.”
The doctor laughed out loud, lifted the woman from her feet, dug into his medical bag, pulled out a vial of medicine, and handed it to the woman, saying, “You’re right. Here’s the cure to your daughter’s sickness.” She thanked him and they parted ways.
What would you say about that doctor? Is he a good one? Would you call him compassionate? Kind? Loving? Helpful? What words would you have for this man? What do you think Jesus would say to him about his actions?
Jesus is The Reluctant Doctor
“ And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden.  But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet.  Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.  And he said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’  But she answered him, ‘Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’  And he said to her, ‘For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.’  And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.” (Mark 7:24-37)
Does it surprise you that the doctor from the story is Jesus? This is such a difficult to understand passage to understand, isn’t it? Why would Jesus do that? Why would He say those things? Why did He treat the woman that way? Before we start thinking we know better than Jesus how to handle His affairs, let’s go through the text together and see what’s going on.
Jesus Among the Gentiles
In verse 24 we learn that Jesus leaves His homeland and walks to the border, and beyond, into the gentile territory of Tyre and Sidon. Remember, he’s just had a massive confrontation with the Pharisees about the hypocrisy of their hearts, and, perhaps, that was a good time for a little trip to let things cool off.
When Jesus gets there, He finds a house and though He doesn’t want anyone to know about His presence, even there His fame precedes Him. His plan wasn’t to spend a lot of time ministering to the Gentiles because, He knew He was, first and foremost, “sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 15:24).
The Syrophoenician Woman
In verses 25-26 we see the plot thicken. We don’t know how she heard of Him, but we do know that when someone we love gets sick, we all keep our ears open for any chance of helping them, don’t we? This mother was desperately searching for someone who could help her daughter, when she heard that Jesus – the famous Jewish healer, the one who claimed to be the Son of God, the Messiah – was near her.
By now, Jesus and the disciples are used to random, desperate people interrupting Jesus everywhere He goes to ask for help and healing. This story is special because of where it takes place. Mark makes the point to his readers that this woman wasn’t a Jew, she was a Gentile.
The question in the minds of all who would read this for the first time would be: What would Jesus do? How would He react to a gentile in a gentile land? He’s already shown He was willing to interact with Romans who had faith, but they were on Jewish soil. He even talked to Samaritans – but they were a people who held to a form of Judaism. This interaction would be totally different. This is a full-blooded gentile, woman from Syria.
Matthew’s account ups the stakes a bit by reminding his readers that she wasn’t just a gentile, but was, in fact, born and lived among the “Canaanites”, meaning she wasn’t just a gentile, but was from a nation that was an enemy of the Jews, a people that Joshua and the Israelites were supposed to wipe out, but didn’t. Their existence was a mistake and caused trouble for the Jewish people. What would Jesus do with her?
Her reaction to Jesus is surprising. She falls before Jesus, prostrate in grief and reverence. She worships Him. Matthew expands Mark’s telling of what says saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” This was a woman of faith among the Gentiles. She knew who she had come to see. She knew Jesus by reputation, and had worked out that Jesus wasn’t just another miracle worker, but was the Messiah of the Jews. She calls Him “Lord”, submitting herself to Him, and begs for his help.
A Strange Response
Verse 27 is where things go strange. Remember, Mark’s Gospel are the recordings of the sermons and stories of the Apostle Peter, and they are always written in a more action packed way, written to a Gentile audience, skipping some of the details to get right to the heart of the matter. Matthew, on the other hand, gives his Jewish readers a bit more context and a bit more detail so they can see the story in a way that is more meaningful to them.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus does something before he answers her. It says, “But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’” (Matthew 15:23)
Consider the implications here. This hurting woman came to his door, begging for help, crying and weeping outside the house in which Jesus sat – and for a while He did… nothing. If you extrapolate from the different versions of this story in the Gospels, we see that Jesus not only ignored her, but in fact, left the house without talking to her. He basically snuck out the back door and she caught Him as He was trying to get away. He was heading home when she came crying behind him.
Even more strangely, Jesus didn’t automatically turn to her out of compassion – as we read about Him doing so many times in other parts of scripture – but it was Jesus’ disciples that seem to convince Him to deal with her.
The question is: Why? Why would Jesus do that? Why would He say those things? Why did He treat the woman that way? Let me give you a couple reasons:
First, this is not so much a miracle story, as it is a teaching story. Jesus doesn’t jump straight to the miracle because He needs to teach His followers something. His intention is to open the eyes of His followers to see the pain of the gentiles. He wants them to begin to understand His heart for the lost, hurting, demonized people that exist everywhere in the world – not just among the Jews. In that moment, Jesus was using that woman to test and expand the disciples hearts.
How? This woman is a representative of all gentiles. She is hurting, broken, demonized, in need of help from God. The question was, “Did the Jewish disciples really care?” and the answer was “No.” See how long it took for them to act. They, like most Jews of the time, thought, “Let them rot in their pagan ways. God has forsaken them, and so shall we.”
But Jesus brings His disciples face to face with an actual gentile woman, that had an actual need, and who desperately wanted help from the God of the Jews – and He waits for them to react. He wants their heart to break like His does. I don’t want to extrapolate from what’s not there, but I would imagine that this teaching time was hard on Jesus. Of course, His instinct would be to heal the daughter of a woman that had faith in Him for help – but there was a bigger plan in place, a bigger lesson to be learned.
It takes the disciples much longer than it should for them to come to Jesus to ask for the healing of this foreigner. She has to cry out, over and over and over, finally falling down in front of them so they can’t take another step, before they begin to feel her plight and start to petition Jesus on her behalf. It says, “…his disciples came and begged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’”
For some, it was done out of pity, for others exasperation, but what Jesus wanted them to learn was finally learned. They finally looked at Him and said, “Lord, just do something for this poor woman! It doesn’t matter that she’s a gentile. It doesn’t matter that’s she’s different. It doesn’t matter the history between us. Can’t you see her pain? You must do something. Deal with her. Show her mercy. Give her the grace you’ve given us. Please!”
A Heart for Evangelism
Jesus does for the disciples what He must do to us too. Brings them face to face with lost people. The Salvation Army had a brilliant campaign a while back called” We See What Most Don’t” They see it because they are looking. Jesus needs to teach us to look.
Our heart will not hurt for people only unless we actually get to know people. Our passion for evangelism and missions work will only happen when our hearts break for the lost. And as long as we sit quietly and comfortably, not knowing them, not seeing them, not caring, it’s very easy to forget about them. And as long as we couldn’t care less about them, as long as our hearts remain unmoved, we are never going listen to their cries or share our hope with them.
Most of us will never go to where the hurting and lost people are. We will never bring ourselves there because it is uncomfortable and frightening, and because we have prejudice in our heart. We, like the disciples will never go to where they are – so what does Jesus do? He brings His disciples there. He forces them to go out of there way, out of their comfort zone, out of their country, to be around people the don’t know and don’t understand. Why? So they can actually see, feel, hear and touch, the broken hearted that before, they couldn’t care less about.
Most of us will never listen to the lost. We write them off, ignore them, chastise them, drop tracts off on restaurant tables, argue with them – but how many of us truly listen to them? The disciples couldn’t hear that poor woman. She banged on the door, she pleaded, she ran after them, she dropped at their feet, begging for them to bring her to Jesus – and they didn’t hear. Their prejudice, racism, discrimination, intolerance, preconception, and bigotry made them outright refuse to have anything to do with this broken hearted woman. How long did Jesus have to let her cry before they could actually hear her? How long did the disciples have to stare at her tear-stained face before their hearts were moved?
Not only did Jesus have to bring them to where the hurting and lost were, but he also had to let her suffer right in front of them for a long time, before their hard hearts started to crack.
Most of us don’t go to the lost. Most of us don’t listen to the lost. And most of us don’t act on their behalf. How long did Jesus have to wait before someone stood up on behalf of the hurting woman? The disciples, perhaps like many of us, assume someone else would do it. If Jesus wants to save her, let Him – I don’t want anything to do with her. If Jesus wants to deal with those kinds of people, let Him – I’m staying out of it. If Jesus wants to get involved with someone as messed up and troubled as this, let Him – I’ve got better things to do.
Jesus tells us to go to the hurting and lost, listen to them, help them , and plead for their needs and souls. But just like the disciples – many of us don’t.
The task Jesus gave to the disciples, and to us, in in Acts 1:8 was to be “[His] witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). But that won’t happen unless our heart breaks for the hurting, broken, demonized and lost first. God knows we won’t get involved unless we feel it. We must begin to ask God to give us His heart for the broken and lost – even if it requires us to leave our comfort in order to get to those people.
I was convicted about this in my own life as I read the words of Charles Spurgeon this week who, though he pastored thousands of people, led dozens of ministries, wrote prolifically, and suffered from great bouts of sickness and depression, still agonized over lost and hurting people. “He was consumed with the glory of God and the salvation of men.”
He once said:
“I remember, when I have preached at different times in the country, and sometimes here, that my whole soul has agonized over men, every nerve of my body has been strained and I could have wept my very being out of my eyes and carried my whole frame away in a flood of tears, if I could but win souls.” ()
Neither was Spurgeon ever satisfied with the amount of people that were saved under his ministry. “The year he turned 40 he delivered a message to his pastor’s and teacher’s conference with a one-word title, ‘Forward!’. In it he said,
‘It is all very well to write essays, but what souls have you been the means of saving from going down to hell? Your excellent management of your school interests me, but how many children have been brought into the church by it? We are glad to hear of those special meetings, but how many have really been born to God in them? Are saints edified? Are sinners converted? To swing to and fro on a five-barred gate, is not progress; yet some seem to think that it is. I see them in a kind of perpetual Elysium, humming over to themselves and their friends, ‘We are very comfortable.’ God save us from living in comfort while sinners are sinking into hell! …. In every minister’s life there should be traces of stern labour. Brethren, do something; do something; DO SOMETHING. While Committees waste their time over resolutions, do something. While Societies and Unions are making constitutions, let us win souls. Too often we discuss, and discuss, and discuss, while Satan only laughs in his sleeve, … I pray you, be men of action all of you. Get to work and quit yourselves like men… Our one aim is to save sinners, and this we are not merely to talk about, but to effect in the power of God.” (From Desiring God and Spurgeon)
I admit that I have never felt about the lost the way that Spurgeon felt… and that is a shame to me, and it isn’t right. And I have sought God’s forgiveness for it. We must pray that God gives HIS a heart for the lost, just as Jesus tried to do for the disciples.
A Test of Faith
Jesus’ words and actions in Mark 7:27 obviously have meaning to the woman too. He said, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” That sounds pretty harsh, doesn’t it? “Dogs” was a common name that Jews would call Gentiles, and the gentiles knew it.
The meaning of what Jesus is saying is that the Jews took precedence over the gentiles during Jesus’ earthly ministry. He came for them first, just like in a family, the children get fed before the dogs do. The children are the Jews, you and I and all the gentiles, are the dogs. Paul repeated this in Romans 1:16 when he said that the Gospel was “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile”. If it makes you feel better, some translations will use the word “puppies”, implying a house pet rather than a dirty, scavenging, street-dog. Not much better though, is it?
The harshness of Jesus words were not an accident, nor were they racist. This is the second reason Jesus said what he did: His words were a test the woman’s faith in God, understanding of who Jesus is, and her place in the Kingdom of God. It was a short, but very meaningful conversation.
Our problem though is that sometimes Jesus’ claims, words, and plans cause us to rankle. His words are not comfortable, not politically correct, and go against our human wisdom. He annoys us with His exclusivity – why can’t He be more open minded? He frustrates us with His timeline – why can’t He be quicker? He says things, and tell us to say things, that get us into trouble – why can’t He just let us fly under the radar? He tells us to do things we don’t want to do – why won’t He just let me do things my way?
That’s all true – but the answer is: He’s Jesus, we’re Not. God is God, and I am not. His question is, “Even if you don’t agree with me, even if you don’t like it, even if you think you’re way is better, how will we respond to what I’m saying? Faith, fight or flight?
Her response in Verse 28 is what our response should be when Jesus says something difficult to us. What would you have done? Honestly? Called Him a sexist jerk? Walked away saying, “Well, if you’re going to be like that I don’t want your help!”? Lodged a formal complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission? Sued him for slander?
What does she do? She doesn’t argue, but instead, response with humility. She actually accepts her place as a gentile, second to the Jews. She humbles herself, calling Him Lord and herself a “dog”… but yet keeps asking for help.
That’s the kind of relationship that God desires we have with Him – and it causes us no end of frustration, because it means that we have to admit that He is Lord, and we’re a dog that is begging for scraps. It means we have to admit that we don’t deserve His grace. It means we have to humble ourselves before Him, prostrate on the ground– and yet stay persistent in prayer, asking for His help, because He’s the only one who can. We want to manipulate Him, force Him, make Him explain Himself – but we can’t. He’s God, we’re not.
We don’t turn away from Him, but keep knocking on His door, asking for salvation, asking for mercy, asking for a miracle because He’s the only one that can do it. There is nowhere else to turn!
Can you pray that prayer? “Yes, Jesus I know I don’t deserve to have you around me. I know you don’t belong here because you are holy and I am not. But I also know that You are good. I know I don’t deserve it, but I also know you are merciful, and I need your help. “
That kind of humility, the admission that we are dogs, sinners, undeserving, barely worthy of the crumbs off a Jewish family’s table, goes against our nature –even as Christians. We’re so used to the Bible verses that tell us we are loved, chosen, desired, predestined, children of God… but we must, must, must remember where we started. Our ancestors rejected God, God’s people, God’s law, and God’s prophets. We rejected Jesus when He came to earth – most of us to ignorant to care, others had ancestors that were involved in His crucifixion. We who sit here today belonged outside of God’s people – but God invited us inside. We deserved nothing, He offered us eternal life.
In the account in Matthew it says that when she caught up to him, she fell at his feet and said three words, “Lord, Help me.” Similar words were spoken by the tax collector who refused to look up to pray, but looked down low, beat his chest and said, “Have mercy on me a sinner.” (Luke 18:13) Words like these were spoken by Isaiah who looked at the holiness of God and said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” (Isaiah 6:5) These are the words of Peter who saw the glory of Jesus and fell down before Jesus saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Luke 5:8)
It is that kind of heart that Jesus wants, that Jesus saves, that moves God’s hand.
In verses 29-30 we see Jesus’ response to her humility. He commends her for her humility and works the miracle she has asked for. She goes home to a healed child, and Jesus heads back home.
This is a difficult to understand story at first, and a difficult interaction for us to read – because of the pain of the woman, the hard hearts of the disciples, the patience of Jesus watching her suffer and waiting to help her – but hopefully we see that God used this moment in time for so much good. It’s hard watch God allowing someone to suffer, isn’t it?
Sometimes our troubles seem to make no sense to us. We ask the same questions that woman must have asked: Why would God allow this child to be demonized? Why would God allow one of our loved ones to suffer? Why would she have to travel so far to meet Jesus? Why doesn’t God just come to us where we’re at, instead of making us come to Him? Why would Jesus walk away from her, make her chase Him down the road, weeping after Him, insult her when she finally catches up, embarrass her in front of the disciples, and then test her resolve, when all she wanted was to have her baby back? Why does God put us through so much trial and trouble?
I can’t answer that question for your situation, but hopefully this story helps us to be able to trust that God knows what He’s doing.
This woman was put through all that trouble:
- So a group of disciples would learn compassion and be affected by her plight – and the plight of all lost souls and hurting people. It allowed them to understand a portion of Jesus’ heart for the hurting and the lost, something they didn’t have before. Because of her suffering many, many more people would be saved through the compassion of those same disciples.
- To show the disciples, and all believers that would read the Gospels, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not bound by borders and race. God’s plan for salvation would expand far beyond the small land of Judea, and our small corner of the world. Because of this woman’s journey, and her daughter’s suffering, we can learn that God detests racism and that His love is all-encompassing.
- She had to wait for so long, and go through so much to get His attention, so that the testimony of her humility would be an example to all people for all time for how we are to pray and keep praying. Her persistence in asking, seeking and knocking (Matthew 7:7) would be an example to all believers in their prayer life.
- Her tears were not wasted, nor was her daughter’s pain. Through it Jesus’ was able to show His power over demons, demonstrate His ability to heal over great distances, increase the woman’s faith, and deepen the disciples understanding of who Jesus was.
- And through her story, condemnation was brought upon the sins of the Jewish Religious experts, the Pharisees, Sadducees, Elders, and Scribes who claimed to know God, but didn’t understand Jesus 1/100 as well as this gentile mother did.
“Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” (Mark 7:1-23)
Here we see Jesus, out walking and talking with a group of disciples – probably with a larger crowd of people around them listening in, when they are interrupted by yet another group of religious experts who want to question Jesus. This time we have local group of Pharisees who have decided to bring in some big-shot scribes (or lawyers) from the city of Jerusalem.
Think of it like having the Beckwith Township hire a group of law professors from McGill or U of Toronto to come and interrupt our church picnic so they can ask us some questions about ways that they believe we are are engaging in civil disobedience and breaking local standards of conduct. The day would go from pleasant to extremely dramatic in very short order.
Mark gives us some back-story on what’s going on here, explaining to his readers (who were probably gentile Romans), why the forthcoming conversation about washing one’s hands was such a big deal. It would be easy to wonder why Jesus said what He did, if you didn’t know the background of the story.
Now, if you know me, then you know that I have a love-affair with hand sanitizer. My brain no longer associates the smell of lemon and pine with clean – now it’s the nostril stinging scent of hand-sanitizer that smells like clean! Mmm Purell.
But what the Pharisees are talking about is far more than just washing one’s hands before they eat. Mark uses some very specific language to describe what they are doing. He says they don’t eat unless they “wash their hands properly”. That literally translates to “wash their hands with a fist (or “using a fist” or even “up to the elbow”), holding to the tradition of the elders”, which probably describing some kind of hand-washing ceremony that was decreed by human teachers, and is not in the Law of God. Think of the sign you see on the wall in a hospital or restaurant that tells you how to wash your hands – and now imagine that sign was enforced by the laws of the city.
Then Mark he goes on to say Jews “do not eat unless they wash”, – which literally means “baptize (or purify) themselves”, and has a very religious meaning. This goes for everything – cups, pots, serving dishes, everything. For them, cleanliness wasn’t next to godliness – it was godliness!
But this conversation with Jesus wasn’t merely about washing hands. Jewish religious teachers had added hundreds of religious traditions to God’s laws, which they saw as important and inviolable as God’s Law itself. Common people didn’t follow the rules as strictly as the Pharisees, which made the Pharisees look and feel morally superior. It also helped to keep them in power since anyone who challenged their rules was – by their definition – challenging God Himself!
The problem was that their moral superiority and hard-core commitment to their religion actually became a barrier between them and God. Their rules became blinders where instead of being a path to, and reminder of, their God, they became short-sighted and saw only the ritual and tradition. Their practice actually prevented them from seeing what God really wanted from them. They started with a concern for honouring and obeying God, but as they created more man-made rules, forms and functions for their religion, they began forgetting about the God they were supposed to be worshipping. This wasn’t a new problem for the Jews, but is spoken about multiple times in the Old Testament too. (Isa 1; Micah 6:6-8).
Jesus, however, disregards their oral traditions and rituals and speaks only of what is in scripture. This confused and aggravated them, because they thought that if Jesus really was sent from God, and a good, Jewish Rabbi, then He would have to follow their rules and teach it to His followers. But Jesus’ followers were clearly disregarding it! So, naturally, they had ask Him about it. Clearly Jesus hadn’t spent enough time explaining the most important things about God – like how to wash one’s hands – to His followers, and they wanted to correct Him.
As usual, Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush, but cuts to the heart of the issue. He knew that hand washing wasn’t about having clean hands. They were trying to look holy, keep up religious appearances, show how unlike the dirty gentiles they were, and trying to out-do each other and the common people in their devotion – not to God – but to their religion. And so Jesus called them “hypocrites!”
We know a hypocrite is someone that says one thing and does another, but in Greek, the word literally describes a “play-actor”. Someone who is merely pretending to be something he is not for the sake of the show. That’s exactly what these people were doing and Jesus nails them to the wall for their hypocrisy.
During His last days, before His crucifixion, Jesus sat in the Temple teaching many things. One of the most passionate teachings He gave was the “Seven Woes to the Scribes and Pharisees”, where over and over He called them “hypocrites”.
Matthew 23 gives us an even better view of what Jesus is talking about.
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.’” (Matthew 23:1-4)
In other words, these teachers do read and speak the words of the God whenever they read the Bible – so listen to what they say – but don’t do what they do. They teach the Word, but don’t listen to it. They memorized it, but didn’t apply it. They could quote it at will and have hours of debate about it, but never listened to what they were saying. They could teach for hours on any passage, but learned nothing. They were amazing at keeping the law and the traditions, performing their religious ceremonies – bit it was all mean to impress God and everyone else with their devotion. They were play actors who looked the part, but their hearts were far from God.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:23-28)
Jesus says, “Sure, you tithe, right down to the penny! But you don’t love people – you’re a hypocrite! Sure you perform religious ceremonies, show up in public with clean hands, but you full of sin on the inside – you’re a hypocrite! Sure, you have the reputation of a solid believer, righteous before all, a pillar of the community – but God knows you are dead inside – you’re a hypocrite!”
Over and over, throughout His ministry, Jesus warned His disciples and the crowds about the dangers of thinking like a Pharisee – and Paul did too. Why did He have to warn them so often and so loudly? Because hypocrisy – pretending we are something we are not – is infectious and comes so naturally to us.
Religion can be an easy source of hypocrisy. If we check the religious boxes, we can look and sound like a good, successful, godly, happy person. But we’re sinful creatures who fail to live up to the standards of God, and often the standards we set for ourselves, so when we fail to walk the talk of our religion, it’s so much easier to fake it than to admit it and ask for help.
The Pharisees couldn’t afford to show a crack in their religious armor. They couldn’t admit that their rules were too hard. They couldn’t admit that they didn’t really understand what God wanted – so they became professional, religious, play-actors.
The Heart of the Issue
Back to Mark 7:14. Jesus gets to the heart of the issue of hypocrisy by making sure that everyone knows the truth about what it means to be clean before God – and it has nothing to do with what happens on the outside of our bodies:
“And he called the people to him again and said to them, ‘Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.’ And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, ‘Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’” (Mark 7:14-23)
Jesus tells them that He is far more concerned about what is going on inside a person’s heart than what is going on with their body. Just like Jesus said of the Pharisees: A person can be like the Taj Mahal, called the Crown of Palaces, the Jewel of art in India, white marble and precious stones glittering in the sunlight for all to see and be amazed at – but inside is merely a tomb full of dead bones. Repulsive to all who can see inside.
Again, just like handwashing isn’t just about handwashing, Jesus talking about food isn’t just about food. The Pharisees accused the disciples of washing with “defiled” hands – a religious and ceremonial term speaking more about their character and relationship with God than the amount of dirt on their skin. They spoke as though the tiny bit of dirt you may have on your hands would be what created the sin inside of a person – that if you washed your hands, performed your religion, followed the rules, executed the right maneuvers, then you would be sure to keep the sin from getting inside of you.
Jesus says that thinking is all backwards. The religious actions on the outside are not what changes your heart on the inside – it is what is on the insides that gives meaning to the religious actions. Jesus isn’t against clean hands, He’s against hypocrisy and the belief that God is more interested in religious activity than personal purity. The Pharisees were amazing religionists, but terrible people.
His issue is that we need to realize where sin comes from – it comes from the inside. People do not get right with God and grow in righteousness because they perform a ceremony and live by a certain ritual – that’s where many Catholics get it completely wrong. The ceremony may have some value, but only inasmuch as it reflects what’s going in inside a heart. Going through the ceremony doesn’t fix your character or make you clean or forgiven – that requires a change of heart.
Baptism, Communion, Public prayer, church attendance, singing songs together are all godly and good only inasmuch as they are done with a heart turned towards God. That’s what God wants – a heart turned to Him. Jesus’ bottom line is that we don’t become pure by changing our actions – we need to have our insides changed first. And the only way to change our insides, know we are pure, and feel clean in God’s eyes, is when we recognize ourselves to be sinners, hate our sin, turn our hearts to God, and ask for forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ. Then Jesus, forgives us, cleanses us, renews our minds and begins the process of transforming us into His image. That inward change affects our outward behaviour.
Jesus said to his followers, “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees.” (Matthew 16:5-12) because their thinking will grow invisibly among believers just like yeast grows invisibly in bread – it’s infectious. Let me ask you a few questions to see if some of their yeast has gotten into your heart. We have to keep watch, because it’s very, very sneaky.
In what ways have you elevated a manmade systems to the status of God’s Word?
Maybe it’s a diet, a favourite book or author, a financial system, a religious practice, a system of rules for living, or a tradition, but for you it’s just as important as anything God has ever said. Is there something that you have elevated to the status of scripture, even though it’s a human idea?
Have you ever rejected someone’s thinking because you didn’t like their background, training or personality style?
It doesn’t matter what they say, you’re not going to listen because they’re wearing the wrong shirt, drinking the wrong drink, hanging out with the wrong people, or using the wrong words. The Pharisees certainly did that to Jesus. They didn’t listen to Him because He wasn’t like them. No matter how much truth He spoke, they wouldn’t listen because of their pre-formed bias against Him. Let us be careful not judge by the outsides.
Do you ever perform religious ceremonies so you can feel superior to others?
You can do this by attending church services, singing songs, praying publically, or fasting. Instead of having that religious activity bring you closer to God, you use it to one-up fellow believers. You attend more, sing louder, pray longer, and fast harder than anyone! You Facebook about your devos so others will know how holy you are. Religion has value when it is done with the right heart, but not if you’re trying or impress God or others.
Do you ever try to indoctrinate people into your version of your religion, rather than trying to introduce them to Jesus?
You need to come to my church, to listen to my pastor, and read this book, and do this devotional guide, and sing this song, and pray this prayer, and give this much money… because that’s how you come to God. Or do you introduce them to Jesus and let God work on their heart?
Those are just a few ways that Pharisaical thinking can sneak into our hearts and religion can start taking over our relationship with Jesus.
The Story of Two Men
As an application, I want to close with a story. I think it will help us understand the difference between hypocritical religion and a heart turned to God:
Two men are full of anger, bitterness, and jealousy. They both hate their lot in life and grumble incessantly to anyone who will listen. They live alone now, after messing up a dozen relationships and spend most evenings and the whole of Saturday surfing for porn and defiling themselves. Their current girlfriend comes over that evening, and they fight with her until midnight, when she final has enough and leaves crying. The next day, they get in their cars to get to church. The only reason they are going is because they volunteered to do something and are the only ones who can do it. They protest and complain the entire way, thinking themselves stupid for ever getting involved with God or His church in the first place. They walk into church, see each other, shake hands, do their job, and then sit down for the beginning of the service. Thankfully, no one else bothered them.
Now consider these two options. The first man sits near the front, in his usual spot. He greets the folks around him with a big smile on his face, even prays for one of the ladies who says she’s having a rough day. The songs start and he stands up before anyone else. He closes his eyes for one of the songs, raises his hands, and starts to sway. On the next song, he’s the one that leads the clapping. When it’s offering time, he realizes he’s forgotten his chequebook, and lays a twenty on top of the envelopes, giving the usher a wink and a nod.
During the sermon, His “amen’s” are always the loudest, though after 20 minutes, he starts to check his watch, counting down the seconds until the preacher is supposed to be done. After 30 minutes the pastor is still going strong, when he lets out a bit of a cough, and tries to catch his eye – to no avail. His foot starts to tap, and he’s anxious to get to the closing song. On the way out, he lets everyone know that he wishes he could stay, but has to get going because he made some plans he can’t get out of — tells the pastor that he did great, thanks the pianist, and pats the hand of the elderly ladies who stand by the door. Everyone smiles and waves at him as he walks away – and one of the people on the Nominating Committee whispers to another, “We really need to ask that guy to be a deacon!”
The second his hand hits the steering wheel of his car he lets out a big sigh. As he leaves the parking lot, his brow furrows, his lips curl downward, and he mutters under his breath, “Great. Late again. Now I’ll never get a good seat. Stupid service is always late….”
Now let’s move to the second man. He doesn’t sit in his usual spot, but finds a place near the back – he doesn’t want to shake anyone’s hand. He feels miserable. Guilty. Ashamed. He considers leaving, but when he stands the music starts and something compels him to stay. He remains seated for the song, arms folded, his eyes fixed on the powerpoint slide – he doesn’t want to make eye contact with anyone. But he can’t help but read the words. By the second song, the knot in his stomach is really starting to hurt. The third song is one of his favourites, and he starts to quietly sing along – and the words wash over him like never before. He starts to choke up and can’t sing. He doesn’t even notice when the usher misses him with the offering plate. Unbeknownst to even him, he’s started to pray: “God, why am I such a mess? I hate feeling like this. Why am I here? I shouldn’t be singing this. Why am I stuck in this vicious cycle? I need some help.
When the sermon starts, it feels like the pastor is talking to him. At the beginning he feels exposed, as though the preacher was sitting in his house during that week, and the shame washes over him again. But as the preacher continues, He speaks of the love of God, forgiveness in Christ, hope of purity and strength. He’d been coming for months now — why hadn’t he heard this before? The man feels the break happen inside his heart – light starts to flood inside. He talks to God and says, “I want that.” That’s it. It starts with three words. “I want that.” Then two more. “I’m sorry.” Then two more. “Help me.”
The preacher begins to wrap up his talk – where did the time go! – and encourages anyone who wants to, to stay behind to talk, pray and share with God’s people. The man knows something has changed inside him because instead of wanting to bolt from his seat, he wants to know more, to listen to more. It’s like he’s hearing it for the first time.
Instead of leaving his seat at the end of service, he just sits there – he’s not even really thinking. He just doesn’t want to leave. The sanctuary starts to empty and he stands up to walk out with red eyes and a wearied expression. The preacher shakes his hand at the door, asking if everything is ok and wondering if they can get together this week. He says sure. He walks past the musicians, past the elderly ladies, past everyone on the way to the parking lot. He doesn’t return their smiles and one of the people on the Nominating Committee whispers, “What’s his problem?” He sits in his car for a full five minutes, in silence, before driving away.
Now, I ask you, which one of these people went away from church closer to God? But on the outside the first guy looked so much better, didn’t he? That’s Jesus’ point.
“He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief.” (Mark 6:1-6)
Jesus Goes Home
There have been a huge amount of miracles in the past couple chapters. Jesus has been going back and forth from crisis to crisis, performing amazing miracles, even raising the dead! But now it’s time for Jesus to make a stop at home. If we look back to Mark 3:31-35 we read about Jesus’ family coming to try to get Him to come home, so He might be returning at the request of his mother and siblings. And after coming into his hometown, hanging out with his mother, brothers and sisters…. as is the custom in the Synagogue… Jesus the traveling teacher is asked to give the reading and the message during the Sabbath service.
Now, he’s already gained quite the reputation in the area. The parallel account of this event in Luke 4:16-29 gives us a bit more detail as to what was happening there.
“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” (vs 16-20)
You can already see the parallels between Mark and Luke. Jesus is asked to give the reading and message, but instead of keeping with the lectionary and reading whatever passage was supposed to be read that day, it seems that Jesus grabbed the scroll of Isaiah and opens it to a very specific passage outlining the mission of the coming messiah to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, preach repentance and salvation, heal people physically and spiritually, and free people from their oppressors. Then, as is the tradition of the day, he sits down to give the sermon.
Jesus Gives a Sermon About Jesus
Keep reading in verse 21:
“And he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.”
Luke only gives us the title of Jesus’ sermon, but we can tell that there was a lot more explaining done by Jesus about what this passage meant and how it would be fulfilled.
Can you imagine getting a sermon from Jesus Himself? Can you imagine sitting in church and having Jesus Christ Himself sit down in front of you, open the prophet Isaiah, and explain to you about all the things that came before, how the prophets spoke of His coming, and then to explain His mission and what He would do? What an amazing sermon that would be.
It reminds me of what happened to the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. Jesus had died, had rose again, and these two disciples were walking down the road, talking together, trying to figure out what had just happened in Jerusalem, when Jesus comes up behind them (though they didn’t know it was Him at first), calls them dumb for not being able to figure out what had just happened, and then teaches them (again!) about the mission and methods of the Messiah.
After Jesus leaves them they look at one another and say, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32)
We would imagine that’s what it would be like to sit and listen to a sermon by Jesus Himself, right? Who wouldn’t repent and become a Christian if Jesus Christ Himself explained the whole Bible to them?!? So here is Jesus giving a sermon explaining Jesus to everyone. That should be a done deal!
Well, let’s keep reading at the end of verse 22:
“And they said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’”
Mark gives us a bit more of what they were saying:
“Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:2-3)
They are absolutely blown away by His powerful teaching, and also His claim to be the Messiah! Now, this passage can be read two ways, right? It can either be”
“Wow! Isn’t this Joseph’s son?! Amazing! What a wonderful young man! How delightful to see Him grow up into the Messiah!”
“Wait, Isn’t this Joseph’s son? Where does He get off claiming to be somebody? What tricks does He have up His sleeve? This guy is a carpenter, not a preacher. He should stick to woodwork because He sounds crazy!”
It’s more likely the second one because look what comes right after in Mark 6:3, “And they took offense at Him.”
That word, “offense” is an important word because it comes up a lot in scripture. It’s the word SKANDALIZO which is where we get the English word “scandal”. A scandal, by definition, is “an action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing general public outrage.” Outraged. Why is this word so important? Because it can also be translated “stumble”. And it is that word that describes why these people turned on Jesus and why people hate Christians today.
The Stumbling Stones
In Romans 9:30-33 we read,
“Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’”
What is “the stumbling stone”? Thinking that salvation is about works. Thinking that we can work our way to heaven. We stumble when we believe that our relationship with Jesus is all about the physical and not the spiritual. Jesus was preaching that salvation was found by faith in Him.
There’s a lot of ways that people stumble over Jesus’ message and methods, getting worldly ways mixed up with His. People love the idea of Jesus saving them and giving them abundant life, and joy, and love, and peace – all the benefits of being a Christian, but they stumble over how He does it.
Let’s turn back to the scripture in Luke 4:18-19 where Jesus tells us about Himself and His mission, and see how many ways people stumble over Jesus.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Stumbling over Exclusivity
He says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”. Their first stumbling block is Jesus’ exclusivity. That Jesus is the “the way, the truth, and the life, [and that] no one comes to the Father except through [Him].” (John 14:6)
When He said “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”, He was saying, “I’m here. I’m the Messiah. Salvation is found in a relationship with me as your Lord and your Saviour. Follow me, trust me, put me in charge. I’m your God, you’re my people. I’m Creator, you’re creation. I’m God, you’re not. I have been ‘anointed’, chosen, set apart, and am uniquely equipped to accomplish what I have come to do. There is no other God besides My Father. There is ‘there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.’ (Acts 4:12)”
People today really struggle with this claim. They might like Jesus, but they also want to be able to set their own path. And therefore, when Jesus claims to be the only way, they react the same way as the people of Nazareth did. They “take offence” at him. They want a God of their own design and a Saviour of their own choosing. They want to have the assurance that their good works earned them something. They want to know that their wealth, or creativity, or sacrifice makes them better than others – more worthy of God’s attention.
They like parts of other religions and want to mix them into Christianity. They disagree with some of the tough things that the Bible says about sin so they want to be able to pick and choose what is right and wrong. Though they want to go to heaven and get all the benefits of knowing Jesus, they are not willing to conform their concept of God to who Jesus revealed Himself to be.
Many people are so offended by His exclusivity that they create a different Jesus. One they like better. A nicer Jesus. A more politically correct Jesus. A less offensive, less divisive, less demanding Jesus. They cut the parts out of His Word that they don’t like and write in their own. They make arguments about how Jesus would have moved on from His archaic thinking and would be more like them today. They invent a new Jesus because the real Jesus is too hard to get over. They stumble over the real Jesus.
Stumbling over Humility
The next thing Jesus says is that He has come “to proclaim good news to the poor.”
Just like the original hearers, many people perk up when Jesus says this! The payoff! Jesus wants to make poor people rich! He just said so, right? That’s “good news”! What better news could there be then that Jesus would make us all economically secure. Money equals happiness, right?
People really stumble over this. False teachers twist and turn the scriptures so that they say exactly the opposite of what Jesus means. A lot of people come to Jesus because of this reason – they want wealth and financial security. But that’s not what Jesus promised.
The good news of salvation is not merely for the financially poor, but for those who are “poor in spirit”. Jesus says in the beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
Jesus cares for the poor, but He does not save them by making them economically happy. Instead, Jesus saves people who understand that they are spiritually poor and have nothing can offer God. Another word for that is Humility. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6) He’s not looking for people who think they can save themselves, or believe that God cares about how rich they are. Jesus saves people who know they are sinners, completely spiritually bankrupt, and who are desperately in need of His help to be saved and forgiven.
This is such a stumbling block for people because people hate the idea of being humiliated and love the idea of being exalted. So when Jesus lays out the path of salvation as one that happens on your knees, they are offended. Praying a salvation prayer like David did in Psalm 51 is a remarkable act of humiliation:
“Have mercy on me, O God,… Purge me… wash me… create in me a clean heart… Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation… For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51)
“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” is true… as long as your realize that the “wonderful plan” God has for you includes discipline, suffering, sacrifice and humiliation. Most people wouldn’t call that a wonderful plan – but then most people don’t see things the way Jesus does.
A lot of Christians still stumble in this.
- Every time we come to Jesus with an ultimatum, we are making the same mistake as the people of Nazareth, and the Israelites that Paul was condemning.
- Whenever we say, “If it’s God’s will, then the doors will open and the path will be easy.” we are making the same mistake.
- Whenever we look at our church or our ministries and say, “God, your job is to make this grow financially and numerically or we’ll quit.” then we are falling into the same error.
- When we come to Jesus and say, “Ok, I’ll give you my heart, as long as you heal my family member, take away all my addictions, give me a good job, and make my life easier…” we are showing that we are stumbling over humility.
A Christian prayer says, “Our Father in Heaven, we worship and hold your name up high. You are the king, we are part of your kingdom, we put ourselves under your Lordship. We also put ourselves under your provision and ask for our daily bread. We will not fight, or steal, or hoard, or go into debt to get it… we’ll trust you to provide for our needs. We come to you to for forgiveness because we cannot forgive ourselves. Salvation is found in you alone. We choose to forgive those who have wronged us because their debt to us is nothing in comparison to our debt to you. (Matthew 18:21-35) And we come to you for spiritual protection because you are Lord of everything – the created world and the spiritual. We are nothing without you. We have nothing without you. We will be humble because you have told us to be and showed us how.”
Think of the words of Philippians 2:1-8 which say,
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Stumbling over Lordship
Next Jesus read that “He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives…to set at liberty those who are oppressed…” Jesus did miraculous healings and dramatic exorcisms to prove His Lordship over Satan. And He proclaimed people forgiven by God to show his ability to release people from the bondage of sin.
The people listening thought that Jesus would deliver them the way that God had delivered the Israelites from Egypt or Babylon, but He showed that the proclamation of “liberty to the captives” was not about political prisoners who were captive to human oppressors (which the Jewish people really wanted) but about releasing people from the greater captors of sin and Satan.
But those He was talking to, and many people today, are to short sighted to see that. They stumble over the idea of switching their masters. Jesus said in John 8:34-36,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Master and Slave is the language the New Testament uses to describe people’s spiritual condition. People want to be free from their sin, but they don’t want to admit that they are enslaved by it. And they especially don’t like the idea of submitting to Jesus as Lord. Jesus doesn’t allow for half measures though. This life isn’t about being either a slave or a free person, but about which Master you will serve. Jesus comes to “proclaim liberty to captives” by saying, “I’ve saved you and now you are mine!”
In Romans 6:16-19 says it this way,
“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.”
You can’t be a citizen of both the Kingdom of God and the World. This ties into what we’ve already been talking about. It’s about Jesus’ exclusive claim to be the only way. It’s about humbling ourselves and making Jesus our Lord.
Yes, we believe that salvation is a free gift from God. Our salvation has been purchased by the shed blood of Jesus on the cross, and we can do nothing to add to that. Our faith in the saving work of Jesus is what allows the Great Exchange of our sin for Jesus righteousness to happen. But along with faith in Jesus as our way of salvation is the belief that He is God and worthy of being Lord of our Life.
People today hate this whole idea. They hate the idea of admitting that they are slaves to sin. They hate the idea of having to come under the Lordship of Jesus.
1 Corinthians 6:19-20 says, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” We were captives of the kingdom of death, sin and Satan, and Jesus purchased us with His blood. Now we’re His property.
A slave can’t have two masters and doesn’t get to make their own choices. Christians don’t say, “No, Lord, I won’t.” Christians can’t worship God and idols. We can’t trust God and at the same time put ourselves into debt. We can’t go to someone else for provision. We are not our own highest authority. Jesus Christ is.
My body isn’t mine to do with as I want – it’s God’s. It was destined to burn in Hell and Jesus traded His blood for me, and now I’m His – Heart, Soul, Mind and Body. Instead we “Submit ourselves to God.” (James 4:7) because we believe what the rest of the Philippians 2 passage says:
“God has highly exalted [Jesus] and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)
Christians are the ones who bow first – knowing that at some point, ever other knee will bow too. People hate to bow. So they hate Jesus.
Can you see now why listening to a sermon from Jesus resulted in Him being rejected by His hometown? It’s the same reason people hate Him today. They didn’t want Jesus the way Jesus wanted to give Himself to them. They wanted what Jesus could do. They wanted His miracles, not Him, not salvation through Him. And He wouldn’t perform for them.
Jesus knew what was on their hearts, and He knew why all these people had come to the Synagogue that day. They wanted to see Him perform. They wanted miracles. In Capernaum Jesus was presented with a paralyzed man who was lowered from the roof, right in front of Him. And Jesus, in view of everyone, proclaimed the man forgiven of his sins and then healed him so he could pick up his mat and walk out the door! Both of those are miracles. To touch someone who is paralyzed and make them walk is a miracle! And to be saved and forgiven from sin, cleansed before God and fit to live forever in His presence is also a miracle!
Guess which miracle the people wanted from Jesus?
They didn’t come to be saved. They didn’t want to hear that Jesus was the One sent by God to save them from their sins. They wanted Jesus to do miracles. They didn’t want Jesus to bring them from Satan and Death. They wanted healing from their diseases, freedom from their troubles, food for their hunger, and deliverance from their oppressors. They didn’t want to make Jesus Lord of their life, they just wanted Him to make their life better. They didn’t want Him as Master. They wanted Him to fix it so they could live without discipline, suffering, sacrifice and humiliation.
And so, we read in Luke 4:28-29,
“When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff.”
That’s the reaction people have to the real person and message of Jesus. Jesus won’t play their game and be their Santa Clause, so they are offended. They fill with wrath, they drive Him and anyone who proclaims Him out of anywhere they can find Him. They harm, persecute, crush, punish, and try to drive Him and everything He says off of the nearest cliff.
That’s happening in Canada and the US. You’ve probably felt it. You can feel the noose tightening around believers in North America. It’s certainly happening in Iraq and Syria and many other places in the world. We should be outraged, saddened, and broken hearted for our brothers and sisters… but we shouldn’t be surprised.
Jesus says in John 15:18-23,
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father also.”
And 1 Peter 4:12-19 says,
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And ‘If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’ Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.”
The Recovery of Sight to the Blind
Yes, there have been a lot of people who have done some horrible, even hateful things in the name of Christianity, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about people who hate Christians who act like Christians. They hate Christians because they hate Jesus.
- They hate that He says He’s the only way.
- They hate that He calls them to humiliate themselves before Him.
- They hate that they have to admit that they are slaves to sin and Satan.
- They hate that Jesus says there is nothing they can do to save themselves.
- They hate that Jesus is God and won’t do what they want Him to do.
- They hate that Jesus doesn’t choose their kind of people.
- They hate that His salvation doesn’t equal earthly happiness.
- They hate that they have to believe they are absolutely wrong about a lot of things.
- They hate having to put themselves under God’s Word.
- They hate that Jesus forgives all kinds of sin, even the people they don’t like, even the people that hurt them.
- They hate that He doesn’t give preferential treatment to their people, race, nation, or group.
- And they hate anyone associated with Him and His ideas.
But Jesus came as the Anointed Messiah of God to “to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind…”. Jesus showed in His miracles that He could cure the physically blind – even those blind from birth – and it was a way to show that He had the power, not just over physical blindness, but spiritual blindness.
We must remember that these people who hate Jesus and His people so much are spiritually blind– just as we once were. They “walk in darkness” and are blinded by Satan (John 8:12; 1 John 1:6; Romans 1:18-32, 2 Corinthians 4:4) .
“They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” (Ephesians 4:18)
But Jesus can make the blind see and release the captives! That has to be our prayer. We want them to see, just as we see, and that is a miracle that God has to work. 2 Corinthians 4:6 says,
“For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
And that’s the only thing that is going to help. We need Jesus to shine His light into the hearts of these people, just as He has ours. We need to love them as He has loved us. Forgive as we’ve been forgiven. To grant them mercy just as He has granted us mercy.
Let us pray this for our unsaved family members and friends, and for our enemies and those who are persecuting the church. And let us pray for ourselves, that we will continue to live in the light. Trusting in Jesus alone, humbling ourselves before Him, and making Him our Lord every day.
And when Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered about him, and he was beside the sea. Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name, and seeing him, he fell at his feet and implored him earnestly, saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.” And he went with him.
And a great crowd followed him and thronged about him. And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.” And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my garments?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’” And he looked around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John the brother of James. They came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. And when he had entered, he said to them, “Why are you making a commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But he put them all outside and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was. Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement. And he strictly charged them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat. (Mark 5:21-43)
Crisis After Crisis
This was a busy time in Jesus’ life! Consider what has just been happening to him. Jesus has been crossing the sea, back and forth from crisis to crisis. And no sooner had Jesus gotten off the boat than he was presented with another catastrophe – actually two!
Think back to what we’ve been reading. At the beginning of Mark 4 we see Jesus spending a bunch of time on one side of the sea teaching the people and his disciples. Then, at the end of Mark 4, he gets into the boat and is beset by a huge storm and crazed disciples who doubted Him, His power and His goodness. When He landed on the other side of the shore, the moment Jesus stepped from the boat – I mean, His feet were probably still wet – Jesus was immediately confronted with a legion of demons possessing a super-strong man. After delivering the man, everyone around there begged Him to leave.
And so, back into the boat He gets, probably with wet sandals, and heads back to the other side. On the other side, as the boat was landing, a huge crowd was gathering – waiting for more teaching and miracles. And again, as Jesus stepped out of the boat—another crisis!
So Jesus, feet still wet, is confronted by the ruler of the synagogue who is facing an emergency… and moments later a woman who is in desperate need. Crisis after crises after crisis. Relentless. And yet Jesus is never phased. Never overwhelmed. And gives comfort to all around Him. He is a rock, a cornerstone, a deliver, a strong tower. He is the one to whom we come when things are out of control and messy. He’s the one who can untangle things and deal with the billions of issues coming at us at once. He is Jesus, He is God, and we are not. And that’s never more clear than when we are in crisis.
Dealing with Crises
How we deal with emergencies, disasters, illness and difficult times tells us a lot about ourselves and our faith. It gives us insight into how much we really trust God. It opens our eyes to how patient we are. It reveals our idols and the places where we take comfort. It tests our prayer life. Difficult times open us up to a lot of divine diagnostics.
I’ve had my own crisis over the past couple weeks. It told you last week about the morning I was hit by lightning. That was crisis that came out of the blue and created a lot of havoc. It upset my time schedule, affected my health, wrecked my car and killed my computer.
I went to the hospital and got checked out, replaced some parts in the computer, and got my van boosted and running. I thought it was all done until my van started making some weird noises and I found out that the engine is now toast. More phone calls, more dealing with insurance, more frustration. All little stuff by comparison to what many people are going through.
And as I was dealing with this, I was talking to God, and He brought me to Proverbs 21:1 which says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; like the rivers of water he turns it wherever he wishes.” That reminded me that God’s in charge of what’s going on. He’s in charge of the mechanic, the insurance people, and everything else. He can turn things the way He wishes. Therefore the best person to talk to about it is Him. The question is whether I will have the faith and trust to let Jesus do whatever He wants with the situation.
Let’s talk a little about how we react to crisis, and how Jesus deals with our problems, through the lens of these two people that came to Jesus after He got off the boat.
First, let’s note how different these two characters, the leader of the synagogue and the woman, while at the same time noticing that they both end up at the feet of Jesus. And I want you to see yourself, your own story, or the story of your loved ones in this.
The man is a religious layman – like our elders or deacons – respected and well known in the community. We can presume the man was very well known because Mark very rarely gives names to the characters in his stories, so perhaps he did so because many reading might have known his name. The woman was his opposite. Because of her issue with constant bleeding, she would have been ceremonially unclean and therefore wasn’t allowed to be in the temple or permitted to be in public without making people aware of her uncleanness. The woman would have been ostracized, considered cursed, hurting and desperately lonely.
And they both end up at the feet of Jesus. There is no one kind of person that comes to Christ. Famous, rich, spiritual, religious people — and rejected, broken, outcasts – are welcome at the feet of Jesus Christ.
Let me tell you what was going on here with this poor woman. According to ceremonial law, if she touched anyone, they would also become defiled and unclean. It was a huge risk for her to touch this popular rabbi!
So see how gently Jesus seeks out this woman. Of course He knew who touched Him, but He didn’t want to call attention to her! For years and years, every time she went out in public, she had been forced to call attention to herself to tell everyone she was unclean. For years she hadn’t been allowed to touch anyone. And she had dared to reach out and touch a famous rabbi – one who is on an important mission for a leader of the synagogue! How terrifying for her. So Jesus allows her to be the one to announce herself, to show her courage, and to bring testimony about her healing. He called her to tell her story, but never considered forcing her or pointing her out.
Jesus called her “Daughter”. She was older, not a young woman, so what was this all about. It was about reminder her that God had never turned his back on her. God had never left her. She was rejected by people, removed from the temple, pushed away in her pain, suffering in fear and loneliness, but all along God still saw her as His daughter. And so Jesus addresses her as such.
That’s how Jesus operates with us to. What a picture of how we are all saved. We come, in faith, in fear, having no idea what is going to happen, but only knowing that getting a little bit of Jesus is going to do something! But the risk is great! Coming to Jesus has such huge consequences in our life… and Jesus knows this. So, when we show our faith in Him by repenting of our sins and making Him Lord of our life, He heals us, calls us His “sons and daughters” (1 John 3:1), and gives us a chance to tell our story. He doesn’t hold us up like a trophy, but gently calls to us, drawing us out of the crowd, and gives us the chance to courageously tell our story.
Their crises were very different when you contrast them too. The woman came for personal healing of her own problem, the man came on behalf of another. The woman had suffered for 12 years and had tried everything she could think of – spending all her money on doctors, medicines and methods – just to be well. Nothing worked, and the treatments themselves brought even more suffering.
The man had come, not because of a long-term problem, but because of an emergency. We don’t know what was wrong with the little girl, but we know from the account in Luke 8 that it was his only beloved daughter, and she was twelve years old. It could have been an accident or a sudden illness. Whatever it was, it was urgent. And when a dad sees his little girl on the edge of death, he doesn’t mess around with things that might help, he goes to the one he knows can help.
And they both end up at the feet of Jesus. We all have different types of crises. Some of them are long-term problems that we’ve dealt with our whole lives. Some come upon us suddenly and without warning. Some are of our own doing because we have been foolish. Some are the actions of others trying to harm us. Some are just because we live in a fallen world. No one is to blame, but the danger, fear and pain is very real.
All these problems are welcome at the feet of Jesus. If we mess up, we can bring it to Jesus. If we have the same problem for years and years, we can still bring it to Jesus. If we are in an emergency, our first stop needs to be Jesus. There is nothing beyond His reach or power.
How each person acted out their faith, and the miracles Jesus performs have contrasts too. The man came to get Jesus to bring Him to his daughter. The woman came to see Jesus and was hoping to get away unseen. The woman was suffering for a long time and was healed instantly. The little girl died and was resurrected. The woman who was unclean reached out to touch Jesus, and Jesus reached out to touch the dead girl who, because she had died, was now unclean.
The woman pressed through the crowd, doing all she could to get to Jesus – no one was going to stop her. The man had all but given up after receiving news of his daughter’s death.
And they both experience the miraculous power and healing of Jesus. They both had faith – perhaps the woman had more since the man had almost turned away – but it was present in both. But it wasn’t the measure of their faith that determined the miracle – just who they had faith in!
The woman didn’t need a faith boost, so Jesus said to her “Your faith has made you well…”. However, to the man who was losing faith in what Jesus could do about the situation, He said, “Do not be afraid any longer, only believe.”
How ironic. I wonder how many people this synagogue leader had said those very words to as people in his congregation came to him with problems. How many times did he tell them, “Don’t be afraid, have faith.” How many times had he reminded people about the power of God and the miracles in Israel’s past? How many people had he encouraged to pray for a miracle? How many people had heard him say, “Don’t be afraid, have faith”? And when it was time for him to have faith — it failed him. But that didn’t stop Jesus from helping him. Jesus didn’t walk away, did he?
It’s not unheard of to have a crisis of faith during a difficult time, is it? John the Baptist had a crisis of faith when he was unjustly locked up in prison. Peter had the same when Jesus told him that He would be crucified. We all do. Emergencies, illness and disaster really let us know where our faith is.
Granted, this was a pretty big ask of Jesus. His daughter was dead – that’s usually the end of the story. But Jesus looks at him and says, “Don’t worry, don’t be afraid, don’t fall apart, don’t quit on me. I’m still here. I still have power, this story isn’t over. When I’m involved, death isn’t ever the end of the story. It looks bad now, but I’ve got this under control. I’m not surprised, and since I’m here, you’re not helpless. Let’s go.”
And when Jesus and the father of this young girl got to the home, they were confronted with the mourners. Jesus told them not to worry because He was there to deal with the problem. In fact, this death was going to be so short that it was going to look like a little nap.
In the same way, as these two miracles were so different, the way Jesus deals with our problems is going to look very different. Sometimes the healing will be immediate and powerful. Sometimes we’ll see the physical, or financial, or emotional, or relational miracle happen before our eyes. The addiction will disappear. The cancer will go away. The money will just show up. There are times when we come to Jesus with a desperate issue and it’ll just happen.
Other times, it’s not going to happen the way we think. Sometimes the miracle comes after death when we, or our loved one, sees Jesus in heaven. Sometimes the miracle isn’t in the physical healing we want to see, but in the testimony this person is able to have as a result of their suffering. Sometimes the healing is spiritual, or emotional, and not physical. Instead of healing the body, Jesus does something better and heals the soul. Sometimes, God chooses to allow the suffering because it is the best way to help the person to grow stronger in their faith.
The father would never have wanted his daughter to die. But that’s how Jesus wanted it to happen. He could have healed her from a distance, but he had a different plan for her and her family. This man needed to see something different from Jesus so his faith would grow. The presenting issue of having a dying daughter wasn’t the real problem – the problem was the faith of the family, the faith of the community, the trust that they had in Jesus, and their need to see His power. And He would do it, not through healing a sick girl, but raising one from the dead.
The mourners were mocking and called Jesus foolish – and maybe even the father for bringing Jesus there at all. And we’re going to get mocked too, for having faith in Jesus, and bringing Him problems that seem impossible to solve. We are going to get mocked for having faith in Jesus, and for believing that even though He can heal us (or our loved one), He’s choosing not to and it’s for a good reason.
Sometimes people are going to stand in our way and tell us to “stop bothering God”, just as the people who came from the man’s house said, “Why trouble the teacher anymore?”. They’ll tell us to quit praying. It’s not working. Clearly God isn’t listening. He doesn’t care. But that’s not true! There is so much that is done as we pray and trust.
And just as I’m sure this woman with the bleeding received hundreds of pieces of advice, remedies and miracle cures, so will people tell us to try all manner of human means of fixing our problems. They’ll tell us to take it into our own hands, manipulate the situation, compromise our integrity, just fib a little. They will be like Job’s wife who, after seeing the suffering of her husband said, “Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9) Just quit! Give up!
Suffering Builds Us
But we believe as Christians that Jesus knows better. We do not quit praying and we trust that He knows best. If God choose to bless us with an immediate miracle – we will thank Him. If He chooses that we must suffer in this life, and that the miracle will only come when we see Him face to face, we will thank Him!
Why? Because he is faithful! He is worthy of our trust! He is wiser than us, and He knows us better that we know ourselves. And we believe Romans 5:1-5 which says,
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
And we agree with James 1:2-4 which says,
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be complete, not lacking anything.”
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Don’t You Care?
“On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’” (Mark 4:35-38)
Let’s stop there and dig into that question, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
The Wrong Ending
Do you ever read spy or adventure novels? Imagine this scene occurring in the middle of your book.
The hero, Ace, has tracked the diamond thieves across the whole globe, finally reaching their secret hideout deep in the woods. But things have turned for the worse! As he was taking pictures with his spy camera, he fell through the roof right in front of the leader of the gang. Oh no! Ace has been captured!
Now, there sits the hero of the story, bloody and bruised, tied to a chair in the middle of a cabin, deep in the woods. His enemies have left him there to die as they run outside to finish off Ace once and for all. Our hero looks around, wondering what he can do. His hands are tied, the chair is made of heavy wood, and he’s weak from the beating he’s just taken.
The villains outside are drenching the cabin with gallons and gallons of gasoline. Ace can hear their leader laughing and mocking him – and in good evil villain fashion, telling Ace his whole dastardly plot for world domination. Ace pulls against the ropes with all his strength, turning over his chair, landing with a crash on the floor.
Suddenly, outside there is silence… and Ace hears the click-click of a torch being lit. Within moments bright yellow blaze of flames engulfs the walls in seconds. Ace is trapped. He yells for help, but there is no one around for hundreds of miles. Suddenly he remembers his laser spy watch! He can cut through the bonds with the laser! H wrenches his wrist, breaking his thumbs, but struggle as he might, he just can’t reach his watch. Finally, in an act of desperation, Ace rolls to the wall, using it to get himself onto his feet, and tries to smash his body and the chair through the burning cabin wall–it leaves a dent, but the wood on the outside is far too thick to break through.
Soon, smoke is billowing throughout the room. His breathing becomes laboured and his head is starting to spin. He’s becoming covered by the thick, dark clouds of ash. He passes out to the sound of a helicopter roaring to life – full of wealthy super-villains . Within a few minutes his barely breathing form is engulfed in flames and our hero, Ace, is gone forever. The chapter closes with the jewel thieves laughing at the fool who thought he could stop them.
And there you are, holding your book, thinking, “What? They killed the main character? No way!” So you turn to the next chapter to see if he had actually escaped, or if it was all a dream. But no. The hero is dead, the bad guys have won. Evil triumphed and as far as you can tell the rest of the book goes on to describe how the thieves spend their millions of dollars and took over the world. (Story adapted from Gary Poole’s “How could God allow suffering and Evil”)
Re-Writing the Ending
What would you think of that book? Unfair, right?! That’s not how it’s supposed to go! You’d think the author would have figured out a better ending than that! But the author didn’t write it that way… he let the hero die.
That’s how life seems sometimes, doesn’t it? Unfair. Not right. When something catastrophic like a natural disaster, kidnapping, or a family member dies or is terribly hurt in a car accident, it’s as the Author has made a huge mistake. Breaking up with someone you love causes a huge, dark hole of disappointment opens up in your heart… and you just wish that someone would come and rewrite that part of your life.
Have you ever felt this way? I’m sure we all have. We all find ourselves asking the question: “Is God in charge, or not? Is He out there writing the script for how this world works, or is it all just random and out of control? And if He is in charge of everything, all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful, then why doesn’t He write a better ending? We want him to write like CS Lewis, JK Rowling, or the old Fairy Tales authors where everyone lives happily ever after… but sometimes He seems more like RR Martin or Quentin Tarantino – randomly writing in heartbreak and loss for what seems like no reason at all – other than to frustrate everyone.
Do you ever wish that God would step in and rewrite something in your life, or someone who is close to you? I can think of a few times that I wish God would have just expunged from my record. Relationships I’ve messed up, an uncle who committed suicide in a horrible way, the rejection that I felt all through High School, arguments I’ve had with my wife, things I’ve said to my kids that I never should have said, debts I’ve accumulated that are now plaguing me. I wish that God would have come down at that moment, hit rewind, and rewritten it to have a better ending.
Big, Important Questions
We all, at some point, cry out to God just like the disciples did on the boat, They said, ““Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”. We say “What’s going on? It’s not fair! It’s not right! Why won’t you step in and fix this?”
Take comfort that we’re not alone in those questions. We read this all over scripture.
Jeremiah the prophet who was called by God to deliver messages to Israel, half way through says to God, “O LORD, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me.” (20:7) He says, “God, you lied, you strong-armed me into this mess, and it’s not right! Why are you doing this?”
David says to Him, “Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.” (Ps 22:1b-2) “God, you’re letting me down, and not even listening! Where are you?”
The prophet Habbakuk (1:13) says to God, “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” Essentially saying, “Horrible things are happening to good people, and you’re nowhere to be found! Why don’t you do something?”
These are questions that each of us ask. I think it’s very meaningful and comforting to know that I’m not alone in my frustrations, and even the holiest people of the Bible have felt what we’ve felt – and far worse – and felt that they could ask God these kinds of questions. It lets me know that I’m not alone.
But at the root the question is really this: Where is God when bad things happen? What is God doing about the problem of evil in this world?
People often site sin, evil and all the bad things that happen in the world as reasons to either deny or distrust God.
There’s an old quote from a Greek philosopher that states this problem like this:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
If God is all powerful, then why do bad things happen? Isn’t God a good God? Either there is no god and all this horrible stuff is just chaos out of control. Or, there is a god, but He has no power to help us. Or, there is a god, and he is all powerful, but he’s not good and simply enjoys watching people suffer. Is any of that true?
Well, I want to go through a few options of what God could do about the evil in the world see if we can’t find out what He’s doing. I’m not coming up with this on my own, but am using a wonderful little study guide by a man named Gary Poole’s called “How could God allow suffering and Evil”.
For these options, let’s assume a Biblical view of God. That He is perfectly good, perfectly just, all-knowing, all-powerful, and ever-present. So then, what are some options that He could use to take over the world? Let’s do a little philosophizing and try to “think God’s thoughts after Him.” (Johann Kepler)
Option 1: Destroy The World
First, He could simply destroy all of humanity. If He is all-powerful then He could easily wipe out the human race. He did it before with a flood, right? This is a simple solution: if there weren’t any people, then no one could get hurt. No evil, no murder, no thieves, no problems. And if He blew up the whole world there would also be no hurricanes, volcanoes or earthquakes! Perfect peace.
Well, that’s not the best solution, is it? If God is all-knowing, then He knew all this would happen before He ever created us. So, He must want us around. He must have created us for a purpose, and wants for us to be a part of creation. We mess it up, hurt each other, and are slowly killing the planet He gave us, but we are apparently important enough to Him that He’s decided to keep us around. But there’s still a problem with Evil…
Option 2: Zap the Evil People
The second thing God could do is to hand-pick all the evil people out of the world and eliminate them. Tally up all the really bad people – the murderers, rapists, terrorists, etc. – and fry them with a bolt of lightning.
And then, let’s go one better. Since God is all-knowing, and already knows who is going to commit an act of evil against someone else, or any part of creation, or against Himself, He could destroy them before they even take their first breath. And everyone else – all the people who would live their entire life without ever committing any kind of evil or sin – or even thinking evil about someone else, because the bible counts that as sin – whether they would do it on purpose or by accident – all those people could just live in peace.
Well, the problem with that solution is that, according to the Bible, and according to our own consciences, we have all sinned and done evil. There is not one person here who hasn’t done something wrong in the eyes of God. So again, everyone on the planet would get fried by a bolt of lightning.
Option 3: Eliminate Choice
Third, God could step in every time something evil happens and counteract it. He could get rid of our ability to choose evil. Just like we talked about before – just hit rewind and rewrite a new ending – and we would never know the difference. Someone wants to do something wrong, and God stops it before it ever happens.
Or, even better, He could make everyone immortal and mess with everyone’s plans. If someone shoots someone else, they just get up and go on with life, without even a scratch. If you get thrown off a cliff, you don’t even get hurt. You just hit the ground, wake up and walk home. If you decide to cheat on your spouse, God has our car break down, and fills the hotel room full of spiders. If you want to steal something, you find that there is suddenly a parade of police officers exactly where we want to take it from. No one’s choices would make any difference.
Or, even better, just get rid of choice altogether. Don’t put a Tree of Good and Evil in the garden of Eden. Pre-program everyone’s minds that they will always make the right choice, every time, no matter what. No bad thoughts, no worries, no issues, no arguments, no one ever even considers doing anything wrong – ever.
Now, the problem is that if there is no choice, then there are no relationships – no love. We would all be robots and play-actors in God’s perfect, little play. No one would choose to love you, they would be programmed to in advance. No one would choose to love God or serve Him out of thanksgiving or worship, but would simply do it because they were supposed to.
In order for there to be true love, true joy, real worship, any meaning in life at all, then we must be able to choose. If God created us to be in relationship with Him, then we must be able to choose not to be. If all you had to do was walk up and push a button on someone to have them say “I love you”, then it wouldn’t really be love, would it?
People sometimes ask why God doesn’t just get rid of all of the wrong choices. The answer is because without the ability to choose the wrong answer — to love or not to love, to be good or do evil, to help or to harm… there really isn’t a choice. For us to be able to experience love, we have to have the freedom of choice.
Option 4: Leave Us Alone
The fourth way God could deal with evil is to just walk away and let us fend for ourselves. He could wind the watch, keep the planet spinning but let everyone do whatever they wanted. Just let the pieces fall where they may. He wouldn’t get in the way when someone wanted to do something evil, He wouldn’t give them a conscience to tell them right from wrong, and He wouldn’t perform any miracles. Just let it go.
That wouldn’t help us much, but from His perspective, if He could make Himself not care about us, turn his back and walk away, then at least for Him, the problem would be kind-of solved.
Can you imagine that world? A world without conscience, without God’s intervention. A world without Christians, without divine morality, where it really is the “survival of the fittest”. A world without God giving people the desire to selflessly serve others. A world where God never raised up strong, bold, courageous, moral leaders who would fight for what is right – even in the face of a stronger evil?
2 Thessalonians 2:7 says, “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way.” That means that right now God is restraining, holding back, the full effects of evil. If God stopped doing that, we’d be living in hell. And God doesn’t want that for us. He doesn’t want to turn His back and leave us alone.
Two Reasons Evil Continues
So, none of those solutions work, do they? So what is God doing about evil?
Let me say this first. I believe God allows evil for 2 important reasons.
First, so that we can see what life is like without God. What it’s like when people are left to themselves, when evil is left to flourish, and when people really get what they want. In this world, we experience evil and its effects partly because it let us see what happens when we get to the end of our lust for sex, power, money, attention. We see the results in ourselves and in others, and are meant to say “That is terrible and I no longer want any part of it. I don’t want to be like that anymore – I don’t want to become like that. Thank God that He has kept me from that.” Many who have looked deeply into themselves, after God has gotten a hold of their heart, and are able to have compassion on those who are so evil thinking to themselves, “But by the grace of God go I.” Evil gives us a glimpse of life in Hell, and is meant to drive us to God.
Second, because He wants more people to be saved. We wonder why He doesn’t just come now. Why not end it all now and just be done with this horrible world? One reason we are given is in 2 Peter 3:9 which says, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” If He would have come before you were saved, you would be in Hell. Those of you who are praying for members of your family to be saved from their sin, saved from Hell and go to heaven… what if Jesus were to come today. Where would they be? I don’t know how it all works, but I know that it is a grace that God gives us time to repent!
Option 5: Experience It and then Destroy it
So what did God do about evil? Well, that’s option 5.
He came to earth to experience evil first hand, so we could know how to live in this world. He came to live a perfect life where He would commit no evil, to show us His divinity and perfection. And then, through His death on the cross, where the perfect man was sacrificed in our place, made it possible for us to join Him and be free of the effects of evil forever.
He could have left us in sin, given us our way, and allowed humanity to just go to hell, but He didn’t. Instead, Jesus came and lived in this world and knows exactly what it’s like. His ministry, the inauguration of His New Kingdom, set in motion our ultimate deliverance from evil. Our faith in His life, death and resurrection, makes it possible for us to be accepted by God into His perfect kingdom.
Because of the evil within us – our sin – we would never be allowed to be in the presence of Holy God. But, since Jesus has taken our sin, upon his own shoulders, and God poured out His justice and wrath on Him, instead of us – we have been given the opportunity to come to the Father in His name. God imputed (credited, ascribed, gave as a gift) Jesus’ righteousness to us.
Martin Luther called this “The Great Exchange”: our sin and unrighteousness for Jesus’ perfection and righteousness. That’s the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Everyone who believes and who is touched by evil, death and disease can live without worrying that that will be their final condition. Instead of fear, God infuses the Christian with hope . And more than that, God promises to use the evil in our world, our pain, suffering, loss, and even death, to bring about good in this world (Romans 8:28).
“Teacher, Do You Not Care?”
Let’s finish the story in Mark 4:37-41,
“And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’”
I can’t imagine what went through the mind of Jesus when the disciples asked that question: “Don’t you care?” He knew why He was there. He was there to suffer and die for not only their sin, but the sin of every other person who would believe in Him, for all time. He was to the perfect and final sacrifice for sin, finally completing the whole law and everything prophesied about him from the beginning.
In a short time, He would be tortured to death for no reason other than the hatred that this world had for him. He will have had done nothing to deserve it, but because of His love for them – for us – His blood would be spilled.
It’s the same question we ask: “Jesus, do you not care?”
“And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’”
So, why are we so afraid? With a God like this, as powerful and loving and wise as He is, why are we so afraid? Why do we lack faith? Why are we not constantly falling down in worship? Why would we try to do this all on our own? Where is our faith?
Let me ask you: Is your future secure in Jesus Christ? Have you been asking Him for the strength He gives, to face your pain and persecutions? Did someone convinced you that Christianity is easy and safe, or are you aware of the spiritual reality that there is evil around you at all times, that you are at war, and all of humanity is part of it?
God has conquered evil, and has invited us into His Kingdom so we might work with Him against it. The words, “Do not fear” are shear and utter madness in this world! There is much to fear… unless God truly did raise Jesus from death, and unless He is abiding in our hearts. Our faith destroys the fear of storms. There is nothing we cannot face if we trust in Jesus Christ.
So let me close with Hebrews 10:19-23:
“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”
Jesus & Parables
When Jesus was speaking to crowds, instead of wowing them with His intellectual power or overwhelming them with theological lectures, He often spoke in little word pictures that captured people’s attention and forced them to use their imaginations to think through big ideas. We call them parables. There may be other smaller points woven into the story — and Jesus’ parables often have wonderful details that have be discovered and discussed for generations – but in each parable there is almost always just one big idea.
He used these parables to both hide the truth and to reveal it. When the crowds would gather to listen to Him, Jesus would tell a story that, for the person who was open to the voice of God and wanted to learn, would be easily understood and readily applied – it would open their eyes to see a new vision of God and His Kingdom. But the person with the hard heart, who was only there for selfish reasons or to see the spectacle, or who was being careless in their listening, the stories were hard to understand… or if they did understand, the conviction they would feel wouldn’t bring them to repentance and a new love for God, but instead, guilt and anger and a desire to shut Jesus up would build in their hearts, adding a few more bricks in the wall between them and God.
It is my hope that today, as we open up and read one of Jesus’ parables, that our hearts would be open, pliable and ready to hear what God wants to say to us.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed
Please open up to Mark 4:30-32, the Parable of the Mustard Seed.:
“And he said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’”
So, what’s the big idea of this parable? Well, let’s remember our context and draw it out. Jesus is talking a lot about seeds and soil in this chapter.
If you recall, The Parable of the Sower (or the Parable of the Four Soils) is about the importance of the soil being ready to receive the seed, or the importance of realizing that the condition of our hearts will determine how we hear the voice of God. The Parable of the Growing Seed, which we looked at last week, is about the process of growing and all the time and stages that are required to get from seed to mature plant. The big idea there was that spiritual development requires patience.
Here, in the Parable of the Mustard Seed Jesus gives us a different picture. His focus isn’t on the planting of the seed, or the stages of the growth. Instead He uses a comparison. He holds up a tiny, little mustard seed which no one in the crowd can see… and then points to a huge mustard bush and says, “Do you realize that without this little tiny seed, you’d never have that giant plant?”
So what’s the big idea? Do not underestimate the power of small, seemingly insignificant things. Jesus is using hyperbole, or exaggeration here, and isn’t trying to be scientific. If Jesus was in Canada or the US, he might have used the Giant Sequoia tree as His example. A mustard seed is very, very small, and can grow to be very, very large by comparison – large enough to hold bird’s nests and for an adult to take shade under!
Too Little Too Slowly
This parable was important to the disciples because though they believed Jesus was the Messiah, they didn’t really understand what that meant. Back in Mark 1:14-15 we learn that Jesus’ message was “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” so we know that Jesus has been teaching about the coming Kingdom. They’ve already seen him perform miracles, healing lepers and paralytics and many others. They’ve seen Jesus come face to face with the Pharisees and call Himself by the title “Son of Man” and “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28). They’ve seen great crowds follow Jesus, and heard demons cry out “You are the Son of God” before Jesus ordered them to be silent. And Jesus has appointed the twelve apostles, the core leadership group for His new Kingdom.
By all accounts, Jesus next steps should be to gather an army and march into Jerusalem, and then on to Rome and the rest of the world… but He’s not. In fact, He’s withdrawing from the crowds, shunning the spotlight, avoiding people who want to set Him up as king.
And so, the disciples were bewildered, discouraged and becoming impatient. They wanted a political kingdom on earth that would bring peace and prosperity soon – and they were starting to think that Jesus had something else in mind.
This series of parables about soil, seeds, plants and trees, is meant to remind and encourage them that though its beginnings may seem small, their parts seemingly insignificant, and the pace not as quickly as they would like – in the end, the Kingdom Jesus is setting up will be glorious and all encompassing, conquering evil and embracing all the peoples of the world.
He was encouraging his followers not to turn away simply because the beginning of their walk with Him was so meager and obscure. Perhaps they began to wonder how this Galilean carpenter, speaking mostly to a few fisherman, and gathering crowds whose size ebbed and flowed depending on Jesus’ popularity that day, would ever hit it big. When would the explosion of change come? When would Jesus finally make His move and set everything right?
Their impatience was growing, and so Jesus message to them is this: Don’t underestimate the small things.
An Insignificant Kingdom
We still struggle with this today, don’t we? We’re not much different than Jesus’ first disciples. In our own lives and our own spiritual development, we’re just as impatient – which we talked about last week. But it extends outwards too, doesn’t it? When we look at our church, or the statistics about how other churches in our country and across North America are doing, it’s sometimes hard to see the greatness and power of God’s Kingdom.
It doesn’t look the way the old “Onward Christian Soldiers” Hymn describes it: “Like a mighty army moves the church of God…”
We have a little better view when we get to speak to missionaries from around the world, but in our own little township, in Carleton Place, in Ontario and in Canada, it’s difficult to see God’s kingdom as anything but small, divided and powerless and .
Despite our age of rising and falling Christian superstars, most churches are small and getting smaller, full of normal people listening to obscure, struggling, stressed out pastors and ministry leaders who are just trying to do their best and seeing very little change. Pastoral burnout is now a common phrase in the circles that I run in.
Churches and pastors go on, week after week, year after year, waiting for revival, waiting for the kingdom to break out, trying new things, each new idea underperforming or not having the staying power to help for long, and they keep waiting for Jesus to send the spirit, to send a miracle, to come back, to… just do something… and He doesn’t.
We are very much like the disciples looking at Jesus and wondering what he’s doing, and why things take so long and seem so small. When will the big break out come? What must we do to see a huge revival?
We look at our ministries, our church, our own gifts and abilities, and all we see are a few grains of mustard seed – and it doesn’t look like much.
But we learned last week that inside of that seed, which is the voice of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is great power! It’s not about our efforts and our abilities, but about the power contained within the message of God.
And without a doubt, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the greatest message the world could ever hear! It solves our deepest human needs and introduces us to the greatest Source of love, forgiveness and joy we could ever expect to meet. And yet, when we speak it to our spouse, to our family and friends, or to our coworkers, this amazing, life-changing, powerful, Spirit charged message isn’t received with joy, laughter, tears, and thanks – but usually with a wave of the hand, a mocking grunt and a request to keep that nonsense to ourselves.
We look at our testimony, and the Gospel, and we see only a tiny mustard seed – too small to help anyone. And yet, in obedience to God, and out of love for Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we drop that tiny little seed onto a huge, huge field of dirt and stones and birds and thorns… and it’s so small, that by the time it leaves our hands, we can’t see it anymore – it’s like we did nothing at all.
And we ask ourselves. What was the point of that? I don’t even know where, or if it landed anywhere it can grow! Why bother dropping it at all.
This parable is for us who long to see revival and spiritual growth in our nation, our church, our family and ourselves – but who don’t see it yet.
Here’s a little perspective for those of us who need a reminder about small beginnings:
The world started with two people, then it restarted with Noah’s small family of six. The nation of Israel began with a couple of barren senior citizens named Abram and Sarai. At many times during the history of Israel, there were was only a small remnant of believers who believed in God – everyone else had turned into pagans.
The life of the most significant person in human history, Jesus Christ, started in the tiny town of Bethlehem, born in a hewn out, rented cave and laid in a feeding trough. Jesus chose 12 men to start his church, and even among them there were only 3 that saw his whole ministry. And he took them three years just to go through boot-camp, and they all ran away in the end. And before Peter preached the sermon at Pentecost, every Christian in the entire world could fit into one room (Acts 1:12-15).
In all of Jesus life, including his flight to Egypt as a baby, He only got about 200 miles away from Bethlehem. Paul travelled a lot, but he never got further than 1000 miles from Jerusalem. And even with all of the seminaries, missionaries, and powerful movements of God, it has taken two thousand years for the message of the gospel to spread to every nation of the world. And as powerful and beautiful and life-changing as the gospel is, and with as many thousands of missionaries there are in this world, there are still many people groups who have never heard the name of Jesus.
In other words, the mustard seed Kingdom that Jesus planted isn’t done growing yet. Have patience, keep praying, stay obedient.
Let’s Talk About Mustard Seeds
I want to switch gears here and talk about a few applications that I want to pull out of this parable for us today. Each one is captured under our big idea of not underestimating the significance of small things. Just as we look at the mustard seed and we think, “This isn’t even big enough for a bird to eat, let alone to find shade and make a home in.”, we may look at some things in our life the and think they are no big deal – only a mustard seed – small, insignificant, nearly meaningless, and underestimate their value and impact in our lives.
But Jesus reminds us that though things start out small, they don’t always remain that way. We are told that these little things grow up. Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God growing up, spreading far and being fruitful for all time. But His message can be applied in many different areas of our life.
Let me give a few examples of things that start out small, but when they grow up, they can become big deals in our life.
1. Small Wastes of our Time and Attention
The first are the small ways we waste our time and attention. Throughout the Proverbs we are warned about not wasting our time and our energies on foolish and useless things. Proverbs 15:14, “The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly.” or verse 21, “Folly delights a man who lacks judgement…” I was really convicted about this this week.
Now, I’m not going to stand up here and say that every moment of every day needs to be dedicated to either work, prayer or Bible study, but we must all realize how insidious small wastes of our time and attention are.
Think of it. We say, “Just one movie or show – it’s only one evening, no big deal.” “Just one more game – no big deal.” “Just one more YouTube video.” “Just a quick check of Facebook.” “Just a quick read through this celebrity gossip magazine… just to see what’s going on.” “Just a quick look at the newspaper.” Just one. Just a bit. Just for a minute. Just for a little while. Just until it’s over.
I don’t know what your go-to time waster is (in full transparency, mine are YouTube, Netflix and Cracked.com), but each time we go to them it is a potential mustard seed that can grow into much more. For me, I really struggle with staying focused on things that matter and not getting sucked into pop-culture. It can steal our time away from our church, our family, our friends and from God. These little mustard seeds, which we allow to grow in our minds, slowly take over our attention spans, our thought life, our time, our energy, and our concentration. Perhaps you’ve caught yourself spending more time than appropriate thinking about things that are only fantasy, or have no basis in reality. Do you ever get caught up in something that has little value to you or anyone else?
This is something I struggle with all the time. So, this is a little heady, but let me read to you something that convicted me this week from a book called “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas a Kempis. It’s from a section entitled “Acquiring Peace and Zeal for Perfection”. In other words, how can we find peace and have a passion for getting closer to Jesus and being better Christians? (Now, keep in mind, this was published about 600 years ago – but it is going to sound like it is written for today.):
“We should enjoy much peace if we did not concern ourselves with what others say and do, for these are no concern of ours. How can a man who meddles in affairs not his own, who seeks strange distractions, and who is little or seldom inwardly recollected, live long in peace?”
It sounds like he’s talking about wasting time watching tv, or on the internet or Facebook, doesn’t it?
“Blessed are the simple of heart for they shall enjoy peace in abundance. Why were some of the saints so perfect and so given to contemplation? Because they tried to mortify entirely in themselves all earthly desires, and thus they were able to attach themselves to God with all their heart and freely to concentrate their innermost thoughts. We are too occupied with our own whims and fancies, too taken up with passing things. Rarely do we completely conquer even one vice, and we are not inflamed with the desire to improve ourselves day by day; hence, we remain cold and indifferent.”
Have you ever felt that? Taken up with passing things, not spending any time trying to conquer vices, but distracting yourself from them instead? It leaves us cold and indifferent to God and to others, doesn’t it?
“If we mortified our bodies perfectly and allowed no distractions to enter our minds, we could appreciate divine things and experience something of heavenly contemplation.”
That question: “How can a man… who seeks strange distractions, and who is little or seldom inwardly recollected, live long in peace?” bugged me this week. Especially the phrase “seeks strange distractions”. That’s what I do. I seek out “strange distractions”. I get so caught up in novelty, and all the cotton candy that mass media is feeding into people’s minds. I struggle with it all the time. My mind is full of useless frivolity and I spend far too much time living in the world of fantasy. Maybe you know this struggle too.
And if I’m always wasting my time and attention on useless, fruitless, foolish, pointless, meaningless, worldly, temporary, nonsense – it’s no wonder that I don’t have a God-centred peace. If I live, constantly distracted, allowing my mind to be pulled in a thousand different directions and polluted by every “whim and fancy” that comes across my path – then I’m not likely to grow very deep in Christ, am I?
Therefore, my first encouragement is for each of us to be careful about the small wastes of your time and energy which, though they look like nothing but a little entertainment, can rob us of peace, joy and spiritual maturity.
2. The Seed of Sin
The second thing that grows up like a seed is sin. James 1:14-15 says,
“But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
Our sins, the smallest and the greatest ones of our lives, all begin like insignificant seeds. That’s how Satan sells his temptations. He’d never walk up with a full mustard seed bush and say, “Hey, can I grow my big, evil plant right in the middle of your life?” Of course not! No, he says, “Hey, here’s this tiny, little, thing that brings you pleasure. You can barely notice it! No one will ever see it! And you can get rid of it so very easily. It’s just a tiny little thing. How much harm can this tiny, little seed do?”
Whether it’s gossip and slander, lust and pornography, anger and bitterness, fear, lack of contentment, jealousy, disobedience, stealing, lying… it all begins in our mind as a little seed of desire, and that little seed, when it is allowed to germinate in our souls, grows into a plant that starts to become a problem, and then, “when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
Maybe you’ve asked yourself: How did it get this far? Why am I so angry? Why am I so bitter? Why can’t I stop cussing or hurting people or lying or cheating? Why do I have these sinful, sexual thoughts all the time? How did I dig myself down so deep into this hole? Why do I keep spending even when I have no money? Why am I obsessed about that topic? Why am I always comparing myself to others? Why am I always upset, afraid, and discontent?
It’s because you bought the lie that Satan told you about the mustard seed. You thought your secret, little sin would be no big deal. Just a little corner of your mind that no one would ever see and which you would always have under control. But that seed grew. And it got thirsty. And it started to ask for more. And instead of repenting to God, asking Jesus for help, and turning to the power of the Holy Spirit, you fed it. And it grew. And now it wants more, and it’s getting out of control. You feel guilty all the time. Your attitude is affected. You are hurting others even without meaning to. You’ve tried to get it under control, and for a little while you can, but it’s not too long you find yourself doing it again – and again.
Sin starts as a seed. What you need to do is call the Gardener. God needs to rip that weed right out of you. You need to realize that it’s sin and start to hate it. You need to repent of your sin – meaning that you don’t want it anymore, you want to quit, admit you can’t handle it anymore, that you’ve sinned against God and others, and that you need Jesus Christ to forgive you and take the penalty for that sin. Jesus promises He will forgive you, and that all the condemnation you feel for that sin can be placed on His shoulders, and you can be free. It’s his gift to you, bought by His blood.
And then you need to give permission to the Holy Spirit to clean up your mind and your soul. To through and kill the whole plant, right down to the root. It’ll take time, and require a lot of prayer, patience, obedience and diligence, but God promises to help you every step of the way.
And then… when Satan comes with his little mustard seed again… and the alarm bells from the Holy Spirit start going off in your mind… don’t let it in. Stop it while it’s small.
3. Small Talk
Never underestimate the impact that your words (or someone else’s words) can have on a life. We may think that it’s no big deal for our kids to play with, or for us to hang around, that person. We know that it’s not a good idea, but we don’t want to avoid them or say anything, or drop the friendship, because we’re being “nice” – but every sentence they speak is full of seeds, and some of them are falling on you and your kids. Words are powerful.
This works both positively and negatively. And we may not think that our few little conversations can have much impact on someone – but as we spread our little seeds, let’s remember the power that they have. Whether it’s the cashier at the store or a little talk with someone here at church, a text, a card or a note, those little seeds have the potential to grow some big fruit.
However, in the same way, a little dig, an eye roll, a sigh, a little gossip, a backhanded comment, or a scoffing remark can be the seed that Satan uses to grow in the mind of a person to choke out their joy. We’ve all had the times where we’ve been destroyed by a few words or a cutting glance.
4. Small Acts
In the same way as sin is like seeds, so are our acts of obedience to God. Each little act of obedience, whether we want to do it or not, can be used by God to grow into something substantial.
We may not feel like what God is asking us to do is all that important, but think of the small bird that sits on the branch, which makes the pine cone fall, which moves the pebble on the ground that that bumps into another pebble, that rolls down the hill, and gathers some speed, and knocks larger rocks around, and begins the avalanche that changes the face of a mountain. Perhaps God is calling you simply to sit on the branch… because He wants to move the mountain.
I’m sure there are many more mustard seeds we could talk about, but let’s close for today and thank God that He has decided to grow His Kingdom slowly, steadily, with strength and stamina, and let is join Him in having respect for the small things.
I’m back from vacation and looking forward to catching up on my posts. I had a wonderful holiday and I’m very thankful to the church for allowing me to be able to spend time with my family taking a break. I hope you are all able to do the same this summer.
Planting & Growing
My family is growing things this year. We went out to the store and bought seeds and little plants, each one of us has their own planter on the deck, and we’ve started a little garden in the back yard. There’s no rhyme or reason for what we planted. I’m growing hot peppers, Anita has flowers, Ethan has garlic onions and spearmint, Edison has carrots, Erica has corn, and Eowyn is growing cucumber.
Our plan was simple: take the seeds and plants, stick them in some dirt, and hope for the best. It’s been going pretty good, actually, and we are excited to see if there will be anything we can eat in a couple months.
Now, I said “I’m growing hot peppers…” but that’s not quite accurate is it? I bought the pepper plant, I bought the soil, I chose the planter, and I stuck it in the dirt – but I’m not “growing” it, am I? No, that’s something don’t really have much control over.
I can do my best to choose the right soil – which is something I’ve learned is important since we planted a Venus Fly Trap in regular potting soil and almost killed it because it needs to be in sand and peat-moss – and I can do my best to give it the right light and spacing and all the rest, but what I can’t do is make the plant grow. That’s up to forces beyond my control.
Parable of the Growing Seed
Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like that.
“And he said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.’” (Mark 4:26-29)
We’re still in the Gospel of Mark and if you remember our context, Jesus was having a shore-side teaching time where He told the Parable of the Sower (or the Parable of the Four Soils). He then took a few people from the group somewhere else and explained the parable to them – and told them a few more parables.
This parable, called “The Parable of the Growing Seed” is similar to The Parable of the Sower, but instead of putting emphasis on the soil (that is, the person hearing the Word of God), Jesus puts the emphasis on the power and mystery captured in the seed itself.
In the Parable of the Sower, the seed is scattered, and Jesus tells us that our response to the message will be dependent on the condition of our heart. Here, Jesus zooms in beyond the soil to the seed itself, reminding us that the Kingdom of God, the Spirit of God, and the Word of God is not dependent on us to make it active, but has its own power. It’s not about the goodness of the soil, it’s about all of the power and potential that is within the seed. Good soil, by itself, produces nothing – it needs good seed.
And this has two important applications in Evangelism and Spiritual Development.
First, let’s talk about the implications on evangelism – which is simply Christians sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with others. Sometimes we get confused thinking that the reason someone gets saved – or doesn’t – has to do with something we’ve done or not done.
Jesus makes it clear that sharing the gospel and saving souls is not about now clever or winsome we are in telling the story, how savvy, simple or spectacular our delivery is, or how deeply it touches the emotions. The delivery has far, far less to do with it than we think. History has shown us that revival does not come because of something people do, or a new form of technology, but simply because God chooses to work in the hearts of Christian leaders and laity.
During the Great Awakening at the beginning of the 18th Century, preachers like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield looked at the dry Christianity and dying churches around them and their hearts broke. They prayed and sought God, and they started to gain a new understanding the Gospel and God’s Redemptive Plan. And so, instead of simply continuing on through the rituals and ceremonies they were so used to and hoping God would do something about it, they broke from their traditions and changed the way they spoke to people about God.
Instead of writing and reading long, dense, theological discourses where they would argue the finer points of scriptural interpretation – which was the standard way of preaching then – they started to try to help people see that the deep theology of their sermons wasn’t meant simply to be held in their minds, but had a deep effect on their souls. They changed from teaching people about God to telling them why it was so important that they needed to know Jesus as their Saviour and Lord.
Their sermons now stressed the importance of commitment, repentance, and fleeing temptation, and feeling the change that comes when a Christian makes gives one’s life to Jesus. It wasn’t about getting overwhelmed with emotions (something that both Edwards and Whitfield denounced) but having one’s heart overtaken by a love for God and His Word.
And that love isn’t something that we generate within ourselves. Which is what Jesus’ parable is all about. We can scatter the seed – tell others our personal testimony of faith, share deep theology, give emotional alter calls or appeal to their intellect – but it is not within our power or ability to change hearts or “get people saved” – that is strictly God’s province. We have the responsibility and privilege of sharing God’s truth and “scattering the seed on the ground”, but the “sprouting and growth” of the kingdom takes time and happens in a mysterious way in which we “know not how”.
There will be times that we share our faith, and the person looks close to giving their life to Jesus, but it never seems to happen – and we are driven crazy as to how they can hear the message but never commit. And there are other times when someone comes up and tells us that our life and faith has influenced someone so deeply that they become a disciple of Jesus – and we had never even shared the gospel with them. That’s God at work, using the seeds we are scattering, and growing them in His own mysterious way.
A second point we can get from this parable is about God’s timing in our spiritual development. Jesus says, “The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
We’ve talked about this before, so I won’t belabour the point except to say, don’t be surprised when things aren’t happening the way you want them to, in the time you want them to. Let me pull out a few applications here.
First, Jesus says, “The earth produces by itself…” which is another reminder that spiritual development, whether that be our own, our friends, our church’s or our nations, isn’t something we are in charge of. We may desperately want to make it happen, but we simply can’t. We can’t make ourselves instantly mature, get rid of all our sinful temptations, make ourselves pray all the time and love bible study and being around Christians. We can’t put our hearts in God’s microwave, set it to 30 seconds, and have it come out ready for worship, super-forgiving, amazingly generous, and able to hear his voice with perfect clarity. It just won’t happen.
We are all on a journey, and there are stages. Like a plant, we all grow according to the soil we are in, dependant on gifts that come down from the heavens (the rain and the sun for plants and grace and mercy for us), and over a period of time. Don’t beat yourself up because you’re not perfect yet. Keep striving, keep repenting, keep depending on God, keep drinking in His grace, keep asking for His mercy, and trust that “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6)
Second, Jesus says, “first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.” He is teaching us about being patient and remembering that things happen in stages. The story of salvation happened in stages. From Adam to Abraham, Moses to David, Isaiah to Mary and Joseph, and all the people in between, God took thousands of years to bring the world to the right time when Jesus was appointed to come (Galatians 4:4; Romans 5:6). It took over three decades for Jesus to grow, live, die and be resurrected. It took time for the apostles to spread the church in their part of the world, and it’s taken two thousand years to have it touch each nation. And we are now living in the time before the end when God is having patience with us (2 Peter 3:9) giving people time to come to repentance.
So if there a couple things we can take from this parable, let the first be an encouragement to not despair if there are times when it looks like God is inactive or far away. He is not. His schedule is not our schedule, and throughout the scriptures we are encouraged to be patient as we wait for God (Gal 5:22; Psalm 27:14; 37:7; Lamentations 3:25; Isaiah 40:31). That patience shows that we trust him (Prov 3:5-6).
And the second take away can be that our time of waiting is not a time where we sit and do nothing, but one where we are active in prayer, good deeds and sharing the gospel with others (Matthew 25), scattering the seed wherever we can. Soon enough, “when the grain is ripe” God will come and “put in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
I want to take you on a bit of a journey around scripture today. We’re still in the Gospel of Mark, but we’re going to jump around a bit to explain part of what we are going to talk about today.
First, open up to Mark 4:21-25. Let’s remember our context. Jesus was having a teaching time on the seaside and told the Parable of the Sower. Then, after he went inside, he explained the parable to a smaller group of disciples. That parable was what inspired our study over the past 6 weeks. Now, in the same context of understanding the parables and being open to the voice and the word of God, Jesus says:
“‘Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.’ And he said to them, ‘Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.’”
Light and Darkness
Now, what we see Jesus talking about here the importance of hearing what God says and then putting it into action. Jesus is the light of the world and He is bringing light to all those in darkness. Light and Darkness – and the human response to Light and Darkness was a big theme in Jesus teaching.
Right after the very famous passage, John 3:16, Jesus says to the Pharisee Nicodemus, in John 3:19-21:
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
He gives a similar message in the Mark 4. Jesus came and brought light. His message of salvation and the coming of the kingdom of God was like light shining on a dark place.
But, as we’ve all experienced, being in a dark place and seeing a sudden bright light causes us to react. No doubt you’ve experienced this. “Morning people” react very differently than “night owls” to the brightness of the sun.
When the “morning people” wake up, they throw open the windows and welcome the day. “What a beautiful day to be alive! Look at all that sunshine! The birds are singing, the sky is blue, the flowers are drinking it in, and the world is a beautiful place to be alive!” I hate those people.
People like me, however, have a very different reaction. My wife wakes up in the mornings, opens the windows – and I grumble as though the light is causing me pain. I hide under my pillow. She pulls away the pillow and I hide under my blanket. She pulls off the blanket and I grumble and groan and start speaking like a caveman. “Light bad… hurt eyes… want sleep… me want dark.”
Jesus says that we have a similar reaction to Him. Except the reason we fear the light He brings is because it exposes our deeds. “…everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
Jesus says a very similar thing in the passage we are looking at in Mark today. “Here I am. I’m the light. Here is my message. It is light. Here is my kingdom. All who are part of it are light. It makes no sense to hide the light under a basket. The light is here to make things manifest (to be easily seen), to expose secrets.
Light From Christ
And then he follows up his illustration about light this way in verse 23: “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” Meaning “Listen up… this is important.” And then he says something very, very similar in the next verse, “Pay attention to what you hear…”. Clearly Jesus has something very important to say. What is it? “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you…”
This isn’t just here. Jesus uses it in Matthew 7:2 when he’s talking about judging others,
“For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.”
And in Luke 6:37-38 He uses it when talking about giving forgiveness and generosity to others,
“…forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you…. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”
What does it mean in Mark? Again, in the context, Jesus is talking about the His Light coming into the world. What’s he’s talking about is God’s Voice. God says we need to be careful how we judge others, and how we forgive others, and how generous we are with others, because those actions will be taken into account by God. And then, in the same way here, Jesus is saying “Be careful what you do with the light that you are given (the truth, the message, the seeds in the parable of the sower, the voice of God) because what you do with that light will affect how much light you receive.”
If we see the light of Christ, and then share the light of Christ, then we will receive more light from Christ. If we see the light of Christ, and then hide it “under a basket, or under a bed”, or in our home, or in our church, or in our private lives… then we will not receive any more light from Jesus.
Jesus is so clear in his teaching here. Jesus is the source of light. He gives us access to the light that comes in voice of God and living in His truth. That truth (the light) is not meant to be hidden, but to be exposed. Jesus looks at his followers then, and now, and tells them that the kingdom was concealed for time, but it is out in the open now. The light of the world has come. And what you do with that light – whatever measure you have been given – will be judged. And not only that, whatever light you have – if you share it with others, it will grow brighter. But, if you hide it away, it will dim.
Jesus gives us “the light”. He exposes the deeds of darkness and gives us access to light, truth and forgiveness. But we have a choice. When we see the light we can be like that morning person who welcomes the light, gets ready, sees the beauty in it, and wants more and more of it. Or we can crawl back into the dark, deny the light, get angry at the one who would expose us, and stay in the darkness.
Our Lives Will Be Measured
Our lives, and how we react to – and use – the light Jesus gives us will be measured. I want to share an example of what this looks like. Here is the story of a man who looked at his life, weighed what he knew about Jesus, about himself, and about the world in which he lived, and made a choice.
You can hear his struggle. Do I go back to living in the dark, pretending that this problem doesn’t exists? Do I go back to the comfort of the darkness… more money, more time, more family… or do I live within the light that Jesus has given me, even though it will cost me so much?
I love that quote , “I kept asking myself the question, ‘Is this what a good Samaritan would do’?” That was the light that God had given Him. The parable – the story that Jesus told of the good Samaritan and what it means to be a “good neighbour”. And then he says, “I really sensed in my heart that God wanted me to provide medical care for these people outside of the ER and who was I to question what God wanted to do?”
That’s what it means to “Pay attention to what you hear…” and know that “…with the measure you use, it will be measured to you…”.
He says, “A lot of people thought what I was doing was foolish, and they were probably right. In the eyes of the world… ”
The Foreigner and the Outcast
Let me take an aside and show God’s heart here. The foreigner and the outcast, the widow and the orphan, the hurting and the destitute, the sick and the prisoner, are incredibly important to God (Matthew 25:34, Luke 14:12-14). Hospitality to strangers and friends who need help is commanded (Hebrews 13:2; Romans 12:13).
I was reading Isaiah 56 this week and it speaks about God’s heart for the outcasts of this world. Turn there with me.
“Thus says the LORD: ‘Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed. Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.’” (vs 1-2)
We’ve been told this many times in many different places in the Bible, right? This is spoken to the people of the Lord – the insiders, the people of God. What about the outsiders? Listen to the words of God to people who are outcasts and who don’t know what God is going to do with them? Can they be saved? Will they always be outcasts?
“Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely separate me from his people’; and let not the eunuch say, ‘Behold, I am a dry tree.’” (vs 3)
They are not Jews, but are foreigners. Is there any hope for them? Many eunuchs were emasculated and were slaves who couldn’t have families of their own, and when they learned about God’s priorities for life they realize that the damage that has been done to them has completely messed up their future. They can’t obey God in some ways because of their past. Some people feel this way. They have a past full of sin, and they aren’t sure if it can be overcome. They are an outsider to the people of God.
They weren’t born to the right family, but they grew up in a sinful, abusive, pagan mess. They are hurting so deeply because they’ve been emotionally, spiritually, physically and sexually damaged. They spent their life worshipping idols and practicing terrible acts of violence against others. Can they be saved? What does God think of them?
“For thus says the LORD: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.’ The Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, ‘I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.’” (vs 4-8)
Do you see God’s heart here? To those with a history that seems too terrible to overcome, God says, “If you want to be one of my people, and rest in me… I will take away the condemnation of you past and give you a new name. I will take you and give you a future better than you would have ever imagined or asked for. I will take you, who had no home of your own, and give you a place to live within my own house. I will give you a ministry, a purpose, a promise, a place of worship, a joyful house of prayer, and you will be one of my people. My house isn’t just for some people, it’s not just for a certain kind of people – “it shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples”!
And just to make sure we completely understand that everyone is invited, in verse 8 God even invites the people who were kicked out or left – the believer who backslid, who grew up in the faith and turned their back on God – and says that He will go and gather them up too and include them in the great crowd that He is bringing together to save. No one is beyond the mercy and the light of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Jesus Clears the Temple
Reading that brings new light to Jesus cleansing the Temple, doesn’t it? You know what happened. The people of God had allowed the outer court, called “The Court of the Gentiles” to be turned into a Marketplace! This was the place where non-Jewish believers would come and worship. They weren’t allowed in the inner court, but God had made sure that there was a huge courtyard where all the people’s of the world could come and worship! Even at the very beginning, when Solomon built the first temple (2 Chronicles 6:32-33) it was always a place where the world could come and find mercy in the presence of God.
And yet, when Jesus came there…
“And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, ‘Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.’’” (Mark 11:15-17)
Jesus is absolutely zealous in protecting the place where people come to meet God. They had forgotten that God isn’t just for the insiders, but is the God of all people! God gathers his people from all over, and Jesus is incensed by the arrogance and absolute cruelty of the Jewish people who would be so selfish as to kick the whole world out of the temple – and replace their place of worship with a place to make money.
So Jesus, with his bare hands, in the time of the Passover – the busiest season of the year – drives the money changers and the salesman from the Court of the Gentiles. He smashed through the barriers that were placed between repentant sinners and a forgiving God – just as He was about to do completely when He would be crucified only days later.
Can you see the passion of Jesus, the passion of God, for the outsiders? He spent so much time with prostitutes, thieves, outcasts, drunkards, the sick and demon possessed, that the nice, religious people couldn’t stand him!
What is their reaction to Jesus clearing the temple? Mark 11:18,
“And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching.”
Let’s kill him. Not because He’s wrong, but because he was right! He blasted the glorious streams of the light of the Kingdom of God all over the Court of the Gentiles, and there were people there who were basking in it. Finally, light has come! Mercy, grace, peace, love, hope, healing… for the world! But the Pharisees saw that light and hated it. They wanted to stay in the dark, and keep everyone around trapped in the darkness with them.
Light Gets Lighter & Darkness Gets Darker
At the end of the video we watched, he concludes by saying,
“It’s been worth the risk, I think, because I’m kind of afraid of the person I would have become had I continued doing what I was doing. To become more hardened and callous and willingly blind.”
Those are incredibly important words. He’s felt the passion of Jesus for the outcast, the outsider, the hurting and broken. And he’s knows what Jesus meant when said:
“For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.’”
If he had not acted on the light he had been given – and stayed “willingly blind”, just like the Pharisees, he knows in his heart that he would have become harder and more callous towards the hurting people around him. He’s right. Those who act on the light Jesus gives them will get more and more light. And those who do not, even the light that they have will be taken away. They will get darker and darker.
Pure and Faultless Religion
Please turn to James 1:21-27 and let’s grab our applications from there as we close for today. Let’s read,
“Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1:21-27)
Here again is the same message we’ve been listening to. You’ve been shown the light. You’ve heard the voice of God. The seeds have been cast into your soil. The word of God is in front of you. You’ve looked in the mirror. What are you going to do with what you see?
I see three points to remember:
First, cleanse your temple. God’s light has shone on us, and in our souls. The first thing we must do, therefore, is get rid of the dark stuff. “…put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” If you’ve seen the light, accept the light, and get rid of the filth you’ve seen. Don’t be like the fool who fear the light and prefer to let wickedness run rampant in their souls. Remember, Jesus says, “…everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”
So, allow the light of God to shine in your soul, accept what He’s showing you, and get rid of the filthiness. Give Jesus access to your temple and let Him clear out the mess that keeps you from him. Be as zealous about cleaning out your soul as Jesus was in cleaning the Temple.
Second, don’t be a fat sheep that listens to the word and does nothing about it. “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”As Jesus says, “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Remember, he’s talking about hearing the voice of God. If you’ve been to church services, bible studies, small groups, and have read a bunch of books and listened to even more sermons – then are you acting on what you know? Sure, you’re listening, but are you living in the light you have been given?
If you are not, you run the risk of having that light diminished or taken away. There’s only so many times that you can listen to the Holy Spirit say, “Now go do that” and say “No”, before His voice goes away.
We’ve been talking for the past 6 weeks about how to listen to the voice of God, but it doesn’t end there. Listening is only half of the equation. Hear, and then act. Listen, and obey. “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” What does “deceiving yourselves” mean?
It means don’t lie to yourself. Don’t betray yourself with the false thinking that hearing is all that is needed to be saved! Don’t be a fat sheep that merely believes that eating is the way to please your shepherd. You must run, be healthy, produce wool and good meat. That’s the whole point of the book of James. “Faith apart from works is dead.” (James 2:17, 26)
And what are those works? That’s the third point: Self-Control, Mercy & Purity. Watch your mouth, live for others, and stay pure. James 1:26-27, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
This is what Jesus taught. This is what the doctor from the video figured out. This is what Paul was saying to the Ephesians. This is what James is saying. If you want to be religious – here’s how to be religious.
- First, watch your mouth because your words matter.
- Second, crush self-interest in your heart.
- Third, have a passion for the power and presence of God that comes through purity.
Self-control, Mercy and Purity are what is expected of a believer. Be religious about them. The world is going to think you are crazy. And you may get hated, just like Jesus was. You may turn into a “pariah” like the doctor. But that is what living in the light looks like!
“What? You gave it all away? You do what with your free time? You gave up doing what? You don’t watch that or go there? Are you fanatical? Are you dumb? Are you in a cult? Are you stupid? You are given the chance to gain, but instead you choose to lose or give it away? What’s wrong with you?”
Weigh it Out
Jesus tells us to consider our life carefully. To weigh it out. At the end, when we face the judgement seat of Christ, our life will be weighed. What a terrible thing to think you have so much only to realize that in God’s eyes, when He shines His light on your life, that in truth you have very little.
Reminds me of Revelation 3:17-19,
“For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.”
Will your life, when it is weighed by God, be weighty and substantial – or will it be weightless and foolish?
Are you living in the light Christ has given you, and desiring more? Or do you prefer the darkness?
If you were converted later in life, or have friends that are non-Christian, then you have probably had the conversation about “what you are allowed to do.” The underlying question is always, “What kind of burdens have been placed on you now that you are a Christian?” And it’s a justified question because becoming a Christian changes a lot about a person’s life.
The Bondage of Christianity
The perception that most people have of Christianity in general is not that it is a way for us to gain freedom, but a way for us to give up our personal liberty in exchange for bondage. Christianity doesn’t have the reputation as being the place where people are set free… it is a place where people come to have handcuffs put on their life.
Sometimes that’s considered a good thing. Someone will be a bad-guy, or an addict, a thief, or a deviant, and so putting on the handcuffs of the Christian religion with all its rules and regulations about how to live helps them deal with all of their problems. God is seen as a divine referee who blows the whistle every time they want to do anything, so they can’t get in any trouble. So they sit quietly in church, don’t talk, don’t move, don’t talk to their old friends, read their bible and stay in church for the rest of their life. The idea is that some people become Christian because they’ve tried all the other alternatives and don’t have anywhere else to go – so they grab the shackles of religion and clasp them on their ankles as a last resort.
Maybe you’ve heard this, know someone like this, or perhaps even believe this yourself. Christianity isn’t about Jesus, it’s about a means to an end. They’ve tried making money and it’s not working. They’ve tried making friends, and it didn’t work. They’ve tried counselling, and partying, human relationships, and a bunch of other things, but none of them ever really took care of whatever their problem was… so they decide the only place to go is “faith”, or a “higher power”, or “religion” and give all their problems and sadness to God in exchange for the removal their happiness and freedom.
Christians talk about “getting saved” and “being forgiven”, but that’s not what a lot of people see becoming a Christian as. I give God my happiness, freedom, entertainment, and everything fun the world has to offer, and in its place He gives me a form peace, surround me with uninspiring, dull and boring people, piles on a bunch of rules, neuters any form of personality I have and instead gives me the desire to be nice to everyone, and then drives it home with an incentive to stay out of trouble or He’ll send me to hell.
Not much of a sales pitch to become a Christian, is it? That’s why a lot of people call religion a “crutch”. You only need a crutch when you are broken and can’t walk by yourself. If you can walk all by yourself, why would you use a crutch?
That’s why you and I get asked “what are you allowed to do?” I’ve worked a bunch of jobs. I’ve worked three-quarters of the positions at WalMart, washed dishes in a restaurant, and did every labour job conceivable at a pulp-mill. I’ve sold and repaired computers, painted fences, and rolled burritos and made pizzas at a movie theatre. I’ve worked in seven different churches in every ministry position and no matter where I’ve worked, I get asked the same questions about the boundaries of my faith. And I’m sure you have too.
“Are you allowed to drink? Are you allowed to get married? Do you have to pray every day? Do you have to go to church all the time? How much money do they take from you? You’re not allowed to watch movies, or go to the bar, or go to a dance, right? Did you watch that show, play that game, go to that club, try that new place…o, I forgot… you can’t do any of that because you’re a Christian.”
This has become a barrier to presenting the gospel to someone as well. I’ve heard people say “Yeah, I believe all that you’ve said, but I’m just not ready… there are things I want to experience first.” They say it as though as soon as they get baptized their life is over, they hand over their smile, pick up their Bible and have to walk around looking like they’ve been sucking lemons all day.
Flamboyant & Party Pooper Christians
And it’s partly our fault. Think of the Christian stereotype, or the Christians you know. What are the first descriptors that come to mine? Joyful? Positive? Free? In my experience we Christians talk more about the things that we aren’t allowed to do than the things we are. We talk more about the things we hate about the world, than the things we like. We spend more time hiding from and condemning those around us than spending time with them – let alone having fun with them. I was once reprimanded by the deacon of a church I was pastoring because during my pastoral prayer I asked God to “help us have fun in service today.” He actually said to me, “church isn’t for fun.” Being a Party Pooper is what that’s called.
Even among each other, we Christians spend more time bickering, complaining, or ignoring one another, than we do spending time playing, working, praying and serving together.
I’ve been a part of a bunch of churches and it is the rare exception that you find a group of people who are flamboyantly Christian, and have a positive reputation among both believers and non-believers. I love that term – Flamboyantly Christian. I don’t know many Flamboyant Christians. I know lots of Party Pooper Christians.
Think of it. If you know a Christian who has a good reputation among most believers, then chances are it’s because they never rock the boat, are always cheerful, never make noise, and do what their told. They put away the chairs at the end of the service, they nod or close their eyes during the songs, they teach Sunday school or gather the offering. I’ve known people who I’d never heard say a single word about Jesus, who had never led a ministry, who had never shown a single spark of inspiration as long as I’d known them – get nominated to be a deacon and elder! Why? Because they were quiet?
One of the qualifications for Elder is that they have a good reputation with outsiders. Are non-believers looking for leaders who are quiet, submissive, who never rock the boat and who show no personality whatsoever? No way! They want people who are inspired, passionate, authentic, and excited about their cause. They don’t want religious, judgemental, boring, preachy, artificial, party-poopers.
The people we want around us are folks who know how to have fun, aren’t always serious but know when to be, are authentic about sharing their problems, admit they have doubts and frustrations, and are willing to step out of their comfort zone to get involved in people’s lives. And sadly, those types are often ostracized by “church people”.
This isn’t about being introverted or extroverted, it’s about a person’s heart. You can be fun, interesting, serious, authentic in your relationships and get involved in people’s lives and be an introvert or an extrovert. This isn’t about your personality type, but about whether the Gospel of Jesus Christ has effected you in such a way that you have gone beyond religion and are now in relationship with your Heavenly Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and have the Holy Spirit motivating your life and actions.
A Field Around the Fence Around the Well
This event in the life of Jesus, and the last few events that Mark has told us about, teach us a lot about this issue as we see the contrast of the heart of Jesus with the heart of the Pharisees. How can someone be authentic and passionate about our relationship with God, but also live the way He wants us to live? How can we get the most out of our relationship with Jesus, without becoming a religious nitpick? How can we be the disciplined, obedient Christian that God wants us to be, without becoming rigid and prideful about it?
That’s a tough balance to strike because we tend to lean one way or the other. We either exercise too much freedom, leaning on God’s grace, and sin all the more because we can be forgiven – or we lean towards creating rules and barriers, fearing God’s judgment and man’s opinion, and stay away from good things because we live in fear.
The key comes in realizing that Jesus is far more interested in our inner motivations (which we’ve talked lots about over the past couple weeks), than our outer performance. But not only that, He’s also much more interested in us obeying the spirit or intent of His Law – which leads to loving actions, rather than seeking some sort of perfect interpretation of the letter of that law it – which leads to callousness.
Understanding that liberates us from becoming religious. Let me explain what I mean using this event in the life of Christ. If you’re not already there, turn to Mark 2:23.
What we’ve got here are two Sabbath stories. In both cases you have Jesus, the disciples, and the Pharisees. In both cases you have a problem between the Letter of the Law and the Spirit or Intent of the Law. In both cases, Jesus asks a question of the Pharisees, gets no response, and then nails the point home by saying and showing that God is far more concerned about helping, loving and serving people than keeping their interpretation of the exact letter of the Law.
In the first story you have Jesus and the disciples walking along together through a field, when some of them get hungry, pick some of the grain and eat it. Not a big deal to us, but it makes the Pharisees lose their minds. Why?
God said in His Law, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it Holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but theseventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work…” (Exodus 20:9-10)
The question was, “What does “work” mean? To answer this question, the Pharisees came up with 39 different categories of actions that they had decided would be considered “work” and would break the Sabbath. Now these were not rules found in the Law of Moses, but rules they had made up to be sure that no one would break the Law.
Think of it this way… In the middle of a field is an old well. The old well goes down 200 feet. The well represents breaking God’s Law. So, how do we keep people from falling down the well? We could post a sign that says, “don’t fall down this well.” That’s one way. Another way is to build a fence around the well so that no one can get to the well. A third way is to ban anyone from ever going into that field, so they never get to the fence, so they never have to disobey the sign, so they never fall into the well – that’s what the Pharisees were doing. They were the keeper of the laws that banned anyone from even going close to the well.
They had defined “work” so many ways that it would have been impossible for anyone to do any work on that day. Ironically, keeping those rules became a lot of work!
Consequently, what God had ordained as a blessing to Man — a day that was set aside for resting our bodies and worshipping Him together, became a day people dreaded. It was also a way that the Pharisees could control the people, judge them, lord over them, and show how superior they were.
So, when they saw the disciples picking the grain and rolling it in their hands, they immediately asked why they were breaking “the law”… not God’s Law, but their law.
Jesus answers with a story from 1 Samuel 21. David was hungry, went into the temple, and all that was left to eat were the 12 special loafs, the “Bread of the Presence”, which was a symbol of the Tribes of Israel. Every week there would be new bread baked and the priests could eat the old loaves. But David was starving, and so were his men, and the priest had no other food available, so he gave 5 of the loaves to David.
To get an idea of what this would be like think of it this way: What the priests did would be a bit like someone coming into a Catholic church hungry on a Sunday morning right after the priest has blessed the pile of host… and then instead of giving it out to the congregation, the priest gives half the pile to the staving person to eat.
It’s that time in a church’s life when they are in the middle of their traditional thing… like a worship service, a song, an outreach event… or whatever… and the choice comes before the church to abandon the tradition and take care of someone’s need. What’s the right thing to do? Keep the tradition, continue with the ceremony, or take care of the individual? Do we keep going with communion and let this man go hungry for a while longer. Do we stop the worship service and take care of that person? Do we give the money set aside for the outreach event to the hurting family who needs it? Do we take the Christmas shoeboxes we have wrapped up at the front and give them to the homeless people that just walked in?
This goes right back to the question about the letter or the spirit of the law. Do we be a Pharisee who lives far away from the well of sin, or do we dare to walk into the field so we can be merciful? What is more important, the person or the tradition? The person or the law?
Some people are going to struggle with this. The answer seems obvious when we are sitting here talking about it, but I’ve seen it go sideways. I remember one time sitting across from a Leadership Team in a dying church that was trying to figure out how they could turn things around. There was someone who wanted to start a playgroup ministry for moms of small children. The church had a huge basement and lots of space, so it seemed like a no-brainer. But do you know what the group got hung up on? The stairs. The question was raised, “What if one of the kids falls down the stairs? Do we have the insurance to cover that if they sue us?” And what became a very successful ministry almost died right then because some of the leaders were more concerned about the law, rather than ministering to the community.
Think back in your own mind about the times that you had a great idea, the opportunity to minister to someone, to bring them joy or comfort, and your mind was flooded with a million excuses as to why that would be a bad idea: “What if I give this away and people think I’m rich or showing off?” “What if I go there and make friends with that person and am tempted to do something bad?”
The Spirit of the Law
Jesus’ point in telling the story was that God had no problem with the priests breaking with tradition, abandoning the ceremony, and dare I say bending the law, so that a starving group of people could eat. David ate, no word came from God saying it was wrong, no punishment came from God on the priests – it was all ok.
And then Jesus then nails His point home by saying in verse 27, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” Jesus then followed that up by saying, “Therefore, the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.” In other words, the Sabbath was a gift from God to man not a burden to be endured, and Jesus was saying that as God He is the one who is the perfect interpreter of Sabbath Law.
In other words, Jesus is saying that He is the merciful One who came up with the idea of the Sabbath in the first place. He was the One who designed a day in the week where people would set aside time to rest and worship. He was saying to the Pharisees, “Even though you think you are the lords of the Sabbath because you have set yourselves up as judge and jury of all the people around you… you’re not the Lord… I am. As Creator, I outrank you.”
And the second story, at the beginning of Mark 3, makes the same point in a different way. Here Jesus is again doing something on the Sabbath that the Pharisees said wasn’t allowed. But this time, instead of waiting for them to have a problem with it, He looks at them and asks, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?”
His question is tied right to what He had said to them before. His question, restated, was “Was the Sabbath made for man, or was man made for the Sabbath?” “What’s more important, obeying the letter of your interpretation of the law and letting someone suffer, or even die because you weren’t willing to lift a finger… or is it better to do something merciful, even though some around you may consider it work?”
Jesus answer came in the healing the man. The answer was, “it is better to do good, to save a life, to help, serve and love people on the Sabbath in whatever way you can, rather than using God’s Law, or worse, man’s poor interpretation of God’s Law, as some kind of religious excuse to not be merciful.”
It was that answer that pushed the Pharisees over the edge and made them want to Kill Jesus. He had called Himself God, and then cut them right to the core of their hypocrisy. He exposed them for who they really were. Their zeal for obeying the letter of the law impressed the people around them, but it totally blinded them from the spirit of the law, and caused them to completely miss the heart of God.
Passionate, but Not a Pharisee?
So, let’s draw an application from what we’ve been talking about by answering the question from a little while ago:
“How can I be a passionate & disciplined follower of Jesus, without becoming a rigid & religious Pharisee?”
The answer is that we need to saturate our spirits in the Gospel of Jesus and be led by the grace of the Spirit of God. We really don’t need any more Christians out there telling everyone what they can and can’t do – we’ve got plenty of those. What the Kingdom of God needs are people who have chosen to live Gospel centered lives, who understand the depth of their sin, how far Jesus came to save them, how much it cost Him, and how loved they are – and who want to pass that love and grace on to others.
To use the illustration from before, the people who need Jesus area all jumping down that well. That’s where they are! They don’t need scared religious folks shouting at them from a distance, afraid to come near them. They need people who understand the grace of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and how He came into the world, broke down the barriers of sin and shame, exchanged His life for ours, died the death we should have lived – dived down the well and brought all who would believe in Him back up. We were all down at the bottom, and Jesus came there to get us. And I believe it insults Jesus and His Gospel when we consider ourselves too clean, to religious, to pure, to good, to go near the hurting, lost, broken and sinful. It is a terrible thing for us who have been saved from hell to forget where we came from and not do all that we can, to go where we need to go, to share the message of salvation.
If you are a Christian, you have been given the freedom and joy that comes with being a believer. People need to see that our faith frees us, not binds us.
Yes, there are some very helpful boundaries that we must draw because of our weakness and tendency towards sin. I’m not saying that we all need to tear down all of our protective boundaries in the name freedom. Be wise and put up your own personal boundaries against sin. Be careful in your life and do all you can to be obedient in your areas of weakness. I’m saying that we need to kill our law-saturated, religion-loving, fearful hearts and live in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
How to Set Rules
Let me give you a few questions to ask when you are setting some rules in your life. As I said, we need to be wise and have boundaries, but we need to be careful not to be religious. Jesus lived and never sinned, and the Pharisees tried to keep every single law and were steeped in sin. So how do we created some rules for our life and not become a Pharisee?
Question 1: Does this rule serve God’s purposes for me, or is it meant to serve my purposes for me?
In other words, is this a rule that’s meant to make me more like Jesus, or more like my own person vision of myself? Am I setting this rule up so I can be more godly, or so I can be more worldly successful? Is what I’m doing saturated in prayer, or am I doing this out of fear of man?
That’s an important question to ask when setting a rule. Maybe you’ve set the rule “I will never drink alcohol.” or “I will get up at 6am and do my bible reading.” Ask yourself, Did I set this rule because it makes me a better servant of God, and helps me follow Him… or is it meant to serve my own purposes, give me a better reputation, make me a more impressive Christian…
Question 2: Does the rule reveal God’s character of being merciful, just and compassionate, or is it cruel, discriminatory or harsh?
I just read a biography of Jackie Robinson, the first black player in Major League Baseball. The amount of abuse he suffered at the hands of racist people was incredible. And all of those segregation laws were upheld and supported by a lot of people who called themselves Christians.
There are parents who have some very harsh rules for their children, who have no biblical grounds for them, and the only reason they ever give is “because I told you so.” We have to ask ourselves, when setting any rule, does this rule reveal the character of God?
Question 3: Does the rule help people get into God’s family, or keep them out?
I’m amazed at some of the rules that churches have come up with that keep people out of the faith! I’m not talking about Christians holding other Christians accountable, I’m talking about rules that they set for non-believers too. I’d give you a list, but I’d just get depressed.
Ask yourself, does this rule that we are setting help more people hear about Jesus and invite them into the Kingdom of God, or does it create unnecessary hurdles for them to leap over before they can even hear about Jesus?
Question 4: Does the rule have strong biblical roots, or did I come up with this myself, or with worldly wisdom?
This is an awesome question that we all need to make sure we consider. That’s what I love to ask people who come up with crazy rules, and you’ve all heard me ask it: “What verse is that again?”
Someone will say, “Everyone knows you can’t, you shouldn’t, you’re suppose to, you have to…”
And I’ll say, “What verse is that again?”
Let’s not set rules that are just comprised of worldly wisdom. We must make sure that whatever rules we come up with in our lives have strong, biblical support, or we will become Pharisees.
Remember 1 Corinthians 3:17:
“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
Let us not impose restrictions and harsh rules on people that go beyond the gospel and the requirements of scripture. We have to keep from adding rules, programs and policies in our church, or our life, that make following Jesus a burden for people. When we are dealing with each other, and with those outside the faith, let it be God’s love and grace that come through most clearly and most often.
Jesus and the Mob Boss
We’re going to talk about Mark 2:18-22, but let me set the context first.
Jesus is sitting at the table of Levi, also called Matthew, who has just left his Tax Collectors booth and has followed Jesus. They went to his home where Jesus sat down to eat with Levi and his friends. Somewhere around there were also a group called the Pharissees who had a serious problem with what Jesus was doing.
The Pharisees were a group of religious people who were always on Jesus’ case. They worked closely with the Scribes who were the lawyers and law-teachers of the day. They were the rule-keepers of Mosaic Laws and traditions, were the most educated, most pious, most respected, and were considered to be the elite of Jewish religious society.
They didn’t like tax collectors because in that time, the people who collected taxes were Jewish nationalists who were allied with the Roman government for their own profit and were backed up by Roman soldiers to squeeze people for more money which they took their commissions. Most people didn’t like Tax Collectors and to become one meant expulsion from your synagogue. They were considered to be thieves and traitors, so they hung out with other people who were just as hated and rejected by society.
This would have been one awkward party for Jesus to be in the middle of. To get a picture of the kind of party this was, picture Jesus sitting in the private section of a smoky night-club owned by a notorious mob boss. He’s surrounded by thieves, murders, drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes. Some of the group goes out to the terrace to get some fresh air. Jesus and the crew lean up against the railing, are talking about various subjects and having a great time when down below walk a group of Pharisees and their disciples. They look up and see the famous Rabbi Jesus, the great teacher and miracle worker, the man of God, talking with some of the most notorious law breakers in the nation.
Last week we heard them ask the question, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” (v 16), this week they ask another question. Let’s read it together:
“Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, ‘How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?’”
Jesus, You’re Doing it Wrong
Ever have a conversation in your head with someone? I can imagine the kind of conversation that was going on in the heads of these Pharisees. They were too cowardly to do this, but let me guess at what was going on in their heads at this moment:
“Jesus, what are you doing? Everything you do is so different, so strange, so wrong… so not like us. It’s like you don’t even know how to be a good person! You don’t associate with the right people. You’re a popular rabbi, and a powerful teacher, a worker of miracles, and yet you go right from that to partying with sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, and hot-headed fisherman. There you are, eating and drinking with the rejects of society and looking very comfortable there! Don’t you know what that does to a person’s reputation? I can’t remember the last time you hung out with the good people of the city… the religious people, the teachers, the rich folks… if you wanted to, you could be the best of them. And yet, you associate with such… such… dirty people. Just the other day I saw you touch a leper!
And then, just when we think we have you figured out, you turn around and spend the day eating at a Pharisees house with rich people and the Scribes, discussing religion and theology. So now even some of the rejects reject you!
You’re always doing things that make people upset. You could wait until Sunday or Monday to do your healings, and yet you seem to do most of them on the Sabbath… almost to spite the religious people! You’re not sensitive enough to how people feel, Jesus. You shouldn’t do things that upset people because then they won’t like you and you might lose friends, or even make enemies. You just don’t do ministry right!
And you don’t pray like you’re supposed to. You should do what we do. We have lots of memorized prayers that we do at the same time every day. The best of us stand on street corners and show everyone how great we are at praying! Don’t you know the best pray-ers actually make sure that they are in a public place when it comes time to pray? That way everyone can see them… they set a good example for others, Jesus! We’re not even sure that you do pray because you tend to run off to private places and then talk to God as though He’s someone you actually know personally. What brashness! What insolence! Who do you think you are? You should stick to the trusted, old ways and stop being so radical.
You clearly have supernatural power, but you don’t act very religious. And when you do finally do something religious, you don’t even do that right! Don’t you know that there are rules to how we do these things?
Perhaps you need a little education, Jesus, on how things are supposed to go: The scriptures only have one day that they command us to fast on. God told us in Leviticus (which is a book I know you know because you teach out of it all the time) to “afflict ourselves” on the Day of Atonement (Lev 19:29). We go without food, spend time in prayer, repent and humble ourselves before God. You have to realize, Jesus, that fasting is all about living out and understanding the disaster our lives are in. Look around Jesus! We need to mourn and wail and repent. It can’t get much worse.
Now, let me tell you something: Even though we only have to do it once a year, the really good people, the ones who really love God, the ones who are the best at this religion, fast twice a week! Every Monday and Thursday, like clockwork, all you have to do is look around and you can see all the religious, virtuous and moral people fasting. We know how devout and sanctimonious they are because many of them go right into the marketplace on the shopping days when people get their groceries, put ashes on their faces, wear itchy sackcloth and moan so loudly that it’s hard to have a conversation with the merchants. It’s those are people that are close to God, Jesus.
But do you know what? Now that I think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you fast! And you call yourself a Rabbi! Look around you. It’s Thursday! And where are you? Having a banquet laid before you and eating with that tax collector Matthew! What is wrong with you? You need to conduct yourself in a better manner. People need to see how good you are or they won’t know how close to God you are! Good people set a good example, Jesus… you don’t set a very good example.
And do you know what? Even the disciples of John the Baptist, who never agree with us Pharisees about anything agree on this one! So you are clearly wrong, wrong, wrong! They prepare themselves for the arrival of the Messiah by repenting in sadness twice a week. We are in a mess, Jesus, and until God sends the Messiah, we are never getting gout of this one. You need to spend time preparing yourself for him. What if he comes? He’ll be looking for the most holy, most righteous, most religious people, right? That’s us – not you. I’ve got to ask you again Jesus, what are you doing?”
Why Jesus’ Disciples Didn’t Fast
Read from verse 19:
“And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.’”
It seems that every time Jesus did anything it challenged the way people thought about life, relationships, God, religion and everything else. This especially bugged the most religious people – like the Pharisees – because they thought they had it all figured out. The Pharisees thought life was all about looking religious so others would see, doing religious things to make God impressed with them, and living by the rules to show their devotion to God (which, when you think about, sounds like the advice a lot of people give to kids when they are growing up – “Say your prayers, read your Bible, be a good boy or girl”), and Jesus challenged them on that!
I’m not sure how many of us would have. That sounds like a recipe for success. Do good, look good, be good. But Jesus said that the motives of their hearts were far more important than their actions. They wanted to show the world how holy they were, Jesus said that even a good thing, if done for the wrong reasons, will be sinful.
That’s why His answer to the question the Pharisees posed is so important. He didn’t give them an answer about behaviour, He gave them an answer about motives.
John the Baptist and his disciples fasted because they were in mourning for the sin of the nation of Israel and in preparing for the Messiah’s coming. The Pharisees fasted because they wanted to show everyone their piety.
Why didn’t the followers of Jesus fast? Because long awaited Messiah was standing right in front of them. It wasn’t fasting time… it was feasting time! They were in the middle of the celebration of the wedding of the Lord and His Church. They didn’t need to fast to be closer to God, or mourn, or seek direction, or for a miracle, or to get spiritual power… Jesus was standing right in front of them!
Yes, one day Jesus would be taken from them. (Here Jesus points directly to His death on the cross.) Yes, there will be a time when His disciples will mourn, feel the touch of disaster, and desire to be closer to God… and that day would be after His crucifixion. They would truly mourn. They would be so hurt and distressed that they couldn’t eat if they wanted to. Their hearts would be broken, their plans shattered, and their hopes dashed… and they would truly fast – and would begin again their times of regular fasting. But this wasn’t that day! Here stood the Son of God, Messiah Jesus, teaching, alive, and working miracles right in front of them!
So there’s what’s going on around the table and the answer Jesus gives. His answer makes it pretty clear that the Pharisees have no idea who Jesus really is and are completely messed up when it comes to their reasons for fasting – and really, any religious thing they are doing. His answer also seems to say that fasting is meant to be something that we do today as well.
Are We Supposed to Fast Today?
So let’s ask that question: Are we supposed to fast today? Let me answer it this way: There is nowhere in scripture that commands Christians to fast. It’s not something that we have to do. Our salvation is contingent on two simple things: repentance and belief. We realize we are sinners, repent from sin (which means instead of loving our sin, we now hate it and don’t want to do it anymore) which leads us to ask forgiveness of God. We can only get that forgiveness through a belief in Jesus Christ as the One who took the punishment for our sins and then proved His power to save by rising from the dead. Anything above and beyond that is a false gospel. We do not need to fast.
However, the Bible does present fasting as something that can be good for our spiritual lives – when done with the right heart. It’s also basically assumed, all throughout the New Testament, that Christians will fast (Acts 13:2, 14:23). So to close, let’s look at how to do it properly.
1. What Is Fasting?
Fasting is voluntarily giving up something you do regularly so you can focus more time, energy and attention on God. Another way to put it is “fasting is feasting on God.” We are not merely denying ourselves something, but making the choice to fill ourselves up with something else. We move from filling our stomachs with food to filling our souls with the presence of God. We move from filling our eyes with entertainment to filling our mind with thoughts of worship and thanksgiving. We move from listening to music to listening to the voice of God. It is not merely an absence of one thing, but the exchange of something for something else that is better.
2. Who Fasts?
Many religions have fasting as part of their religious life. Ba’hai, Buddhists, Hindus, Islam and many others all have times of fasting as a part of their religious activity. This is sometimes why Christians avoid fasting because they think that it’s cultish. Therefore it’s important for Christians to know that we have a great heritage of fasting in the scriptures and the tradition of the church.
Who was the first person in the Bible to fast? Adam. For a period of time he voluntarily gave up eating a certain fruit so that he could be closer to God. It is only when he broke his fast that the relationship was broken.
Here’s a list of people we know fasted regularly: Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Anna the prophetess, Paul, John, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, Patrick Morley, Billy Graham, and many others today. Up until recently, fasting has been a big part of the Christian religion. It only really fell out of general favour during the Middle Ages when the church enforced rigid rules and some sub-sects fasted to excessive degrees where they included extreme pain and forms of self punishment. Essentially, they made the action more important than the reason for doing it. People stopped doing it because it lost its meaning.
It is having a little resurgence today among people who are tired of an empty, superfluous, superficial life, and who want to connect with a transcendent God who take them beyond what they see in the media, among their friends, and in their city and family.
3. Why do People Fast?
There are a number of reasons people fast. Here’s a few biblical reasons:
Repentance and Sorrow: In the Old Testament people fasted as a sign of repentance, mourning or humility before God. (Judges 20:26; 1 Kings 21:27; Ezra 8:21; Joel 1:14) Nehemiah is a great example of this (Neh 4:1). Sometimes you have sinned, and you feel as though you cannot be forgiven. You want to feel the presence of God, and His touch in your life, because you need to know that He still loves you. This can be a time to fast in repentance.
Sometimes your heart is broken for other reasons – the death of a loved one, loss of a job, a son or daughter who has fallen away. This can be a time to fast in sorrow. Think of it as a coming to your Father in Heaven and allowing Him to be the only thing that fills you up.
Seeking Direction or Need: Ezra and Esther are examples of this (Ezra 8:22-23; Esther 4:16). Jesus fasted in the desert so He might focus more on God and be spiritually prepared for His confrontations with Satan. When there is a great need, and you desire either direction or a special intervention of God, sometimes it is proper to fast. This is not because God listens better when we are fasting, but because during a fast we are more concentrated on God. Fasting clears the cobwebs from our life, and gives us the time and focus to tune our minds, hearts and spirits towards God. God honours those who seek Him with all their heart – and one way we focus our hearts is to fast.
As a Regular Act of Worship: Anna the Prophetess and many in the early church are an example of this (Luke 2:36-37; Acts 13:2). Fasting is not just something we do when we are in need, but can be a regular part of our personal worship times. During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about some of the ways we worship God. He says in Matthew 6:2, “when you give to the needy…” – giving is a natural part of worship and obedience to God. Next He says, “when you pray…” — prayer is also a regular part of worship and building our relationship with God. Next Jesus says, “when you fast” — fasting too is a natural, regular, important part of worshipping God. They are tied together. Now is it commanded? No. It’s more assumed than commanded.
4. How to Fast
– Check Your Heart: Jesus had a serious problem with people who performed religious activities without focusing their heart on God. Remember his answer to the Pharisees was about motives, not behaviour. So if you’re fasting to show people that you’re spiritual, don’t bother. If you’re trying to manipulate God by saying “I’ll fast and then you have to do something for me.”, don’t bother. If this is a way for you to go on a diet, then don’t bother. Get your heart right.
Remember, Jesus is more interested in your heart being right with Him and others than even with your worship. Matthew 5:23, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
God is more interested in your heart being loving and merciful than seeing you perform any kind of religious ceremony. Hosea 6:6, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”
God isn’t impressed by our religious activity if our hearts aren’t right. Micah 6:6-8, “6 With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
– Don’t Be Legalistic: There are no “rules” to fasting. Some people get hung up on things like “If you drink juice then you’re not really fasting.” That’s not the point, is it? That’s what a Pharisee would say. The important thing is that you are taking time to give something up so that you can develop your relationship with God in a more focused way.
– To Tell or Not to Tell: You can either tell someone or not – it’s your choice. Jesus said in Matthew 6:16-17, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,  that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
But in Acts 13:2-3 and 14:23 the Apostles and Elders of the church are all fasting together as a group so they can discern God’s will together.
Since you have checked your heart and you’re not doing it to impress God or others, you can keep it secret or tell someone so they can pray for you during that time. You’ll probably be under spiritual attack so you could use the prayer support anyway. You should tell your wife or husband so they don’t cook you dinner, or make plans to go out with you, and then you cause problems because you didn’t tell them you were fasting. Tell the person you meet for breakfast the next morning that you can be there, but you won’t be eating. (You still have to tip the waitress because you took up her table, ok?)
This also means that you shower, shave, clean up, and go about your normal activities without drawing attention to the fact that you are fasting. Keep it between you, God and your prayer partners. As soon as you do start advertising it you will lose the spiritual rewards.
– Choose a Time: It’s not done for any particular length of time. You can fast anywhere from a part of a day to 40 days. If you’ve never done a food-fast before, I suggest you start small and work your way up. Try skipping a meal first, and then do 24 hrs from lunch to lunch. Take the time you normally would eat, and doing your best not to affect anyone else, use that time to pray, meditate, listen to Christian music, or read the Bible. Feast on God rather than Food.
– What to Fast: Food is a great thing to give up, but it’s not the only thing. What about giving up listening to music or the radio in the car and talk to God instead? That’s a fast too. Give up a TV show, or some other evening activity for a time and spend some special time with God instead.
I made a quick list of things that you can fast: Internet, video games, TV (either one show, a sport you watch or the whole thing), movies, cell phone, desserts, eating out, non-bible reading, alcohol, secular music or radio, any kind of music or radio in the car, a hobby or craft, e-mail, texting, Facebook, twitter, salty foods, make-up, meat, candy, working on Sundays…
I made a quick list of things that you can fast so that you can spend more time focusing on God, repenting, seeking direction and worshipping Him. Each of these can be done for any period of time:
Ipod, Internet, Video games, TV (either one show, sport or the whole thing), cell phone, desserts, eating out, reading that is not the bible, alcohol, music or radio while in the car, movies, a hobby or craft, e-mail, texting, Facebook, twitter, salty foods, make-up, meat, candy…
Let me encourage you to take up the challenge and make fasting a regular part of your worship routine. Do it with the right heart and you will grow closer to God.
We’ve already talked about how Mark is introducing Jesus as the one answer to all the important questions in the world. If you recall, we said that the audience he is writing to are a group of persecuted, Roman Christians who aren’t looking for deep theology, long dissertations or genealogies, or a lot of teaching sections – they want proof that Jesus is who He says He is, has the Power they need Him to, and is the One and Only way to be saved.
They were in a pantheistic culture, surrounded by stories of gods of every sort and kind, so there was no need for another fable or religion to go alongside the rest. The claims of the missionaries that had gone through Rome was that Jesus wasn’t one of many gods, but was the Son of the One, True God, same in worth and power as God. They taught the Trinity – that Jesus was begotten from the Father and had sent the Holy Spirit to empower them to righteous living. They taught that Jesus said there was only one choice. He made an exclusive claim to be the only Saviour and the only One who should be worshiped. This would mean abandoning their other gods and religious activities and meetings, and joining a small group of people who were being persecuted because of their radical beliefs.
And so Mark writes to them binocularly – with two lenses, two themes – one focused on the claims and power of Jesus Christ as He demonstrates His authority through teaching and miracles. The other lens is the reaction of the people around him, especially the religious experts, political power players and the wealthy elite — and they all hated Jesus.
Mark 2 gives us two great reasons why these people hated him so much – First, because He claimed to BE GOD, and second because of His relationships with “unclean”, despised outsiders. Read the rest of this entry »