Tuesday, March 06, 2007

A Snapshot of the Church (Part II): Mark 3:16-19

Last week, we went to an event where the featured speaker was Alan Williams. Alan is the author of the book Walk On, about his experiences playing basketball at Wake Forest. Well, that is not entirely true. Alan Williams was on the team, but rarely did he ever actually play. In fact, at the end of a four year college career, after 120 games in a Wake Forest uniform, Alan had only seen 59 minutes of playing time (an average of less than 30 seconds per game); he scored 28 points, had 6 assists and 9 rebounds. That looks more like the stats for a top player for one game. But Alan Williams learned a lot about life by spending time on the end of the bench.

You may recall that we noted several similarities between the four lists of the twelve in New Testament. Namely, because of the arrangement of names, it seems that the twelve were grouped together in three groups of four. Peter’s name is always listed first, and beneath him are always Andrew, James, and John. The members of this group are always with Jesus at significant moments. The second group of four includes Philip (whose name is always listed fifth), Bartholomew (who is also known as Nathanael), Matthew, and Thomas. These guys are the second string, if you will. They miss out on some of the action that the inner circle experiences, but they are still an integral part of the team. And there is no doubt that as they walked with Christ, their lives were changed, even though they spent a lot of time “on the bench.”

V. Philip: The Practical One

There are two men named Philip in the New Testament. One is this disciple, and the other is a deacon we encounter first in Acts 6. The Philip here, the apostle, would be nothing but a name to us if it weren’t for the Gospel of John. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are all silent about any details of his life. But John gives us enough information about him for us to know that he was unique among the other eleven. He was the practical thinker of the bunch.

Philip wasn’t looking for Jesus. John tells us that Jesus purposed to go forth into Galilee, and He found Philip. And Jesus said to him, “Follow Me.” Many of us could say the same. We weren’t out looking for Christ, but He found us and beckoned us to follow Him. Philip was a practical man, so Jesus gave him a practical calling. He did not say “believe in Me,” but “follow Me.” And Philip did just that.

We find Philip with Jesus at the scene of the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, that these may eat?” Philip answered Him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, for everyone to receive a little.” He had already calculated the size of the crowd, the cost of the bread, the balance on hand, and the impossibility of feeding them. But the Lord taught him on that day that pragmatism can only go so far. Practical thinking is a good thing, but it has its limitations. We must leave room in our practical reasoning for spiritual realities that are incalculable. But Philip did not quite learn the lesson fully on that day.

The last time we see Philip, he is in the upper room with Jesus and the rest of the twelve. After hearing Jesus talk about going to be with the Father and preparing a place for them, Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” It is interesting that in both passages about him in John’s Gospel we find this same notion of something being “Enough.” “Two hundred denarii are not enough.” “Show us the Father, and it is enough.” Practical thinkers have a hard time with spiritual truth. They are like people from Missouri – “Show Me” they say. It is interesting that when Philip told Nathanael about Jesus, he said, “Come and see.” Practical thinkers are into seeing and showing. “Lord,” he says, “Show us the Father.” But Jesus responded to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me?” He challenges Philip to move from seeing to believing, to walk by faith and not only by sight.

Surely today there are still some in the church like Philip. They are so practical in their thinking that sometimes they have a hard time seeing the unseen, believing in those realities which are not tangible or calculable. They want to measure things in terms of dollars and cents, head-counts, square-footage, and the like. And thank God for them. We need folks to bring these things to our attention on a regular basis. But they need others to keep their focus balanced. They need those who are of great faith, who are able to say, “We must trust the Lord to provide!” and “Where two or three are gathered, Christ is in our midst!” and “The Lord of heaven and earth does not dwell in temples made with hands!” and “set your mind on things above, not on the things that are on earth.”

VI. Bartholomew: The Transparent One

Bartholomew is also known as Nathanael. The name Bartholomew means “Son of Tolmai.” So, it is sort of a “last name,” like Simon Bar-Jonah, so Nathanael Bar-Tolmai. I call him, “The Transparent One,” because he is the kind of fellow that you never have to wonder what he’s thinking. He has likely never had a thought that didn’t cross his lips. I think most of us have a sort of filter that stops things between the mind and the mouth. I wish mine worked better. But some people just don’t have that filter. When Jesus met him, he said, “Behold, and Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit.” In other words, he has no tricks up his sleeves. He tells it like it is, and you always what he’s thinking and where you stand with him.

When Philip came to Nathanael, he said, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote.” Apparently Nathanael was well versed in the Scriptures and knew immediately that Philip meant the Messiah. This is one of the many passages to refute those who say that there are no clear Messianic prophecies in the Law and the Prophets. Philip continued, “Jesus us Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” To this, Nathanael replied, “Nazareth! Can anything good from there?” He had studied the Scriptures. He knew that Bethlehem was to be the homeplace of Messiah, not Nazareth. He didn’t know that Jesus had been born in Bethlehem. He was called Jesus of Nazareth because that is where he had spent most of his life. And besides this, Nazareth had a reputation. It was a rough, unrefined town with many uneducated people in it. It was not the most picturesque place in the region. Everyone in Judea looked down on Galilee, but all of Galilee looked down on Nazareth. So Nathanael, or Bartholomew, gives voice to what everyone else was probably thinking but was afraid to say – “How can Messiah come from Nazareth? It’s the armpit of Israel!” No filter, you see.

When Jesus met Bartholomew and called him an Israelite in whom is no deceit, Nathanael responded by saying, “How do you know me?” We might rephrase that as a modern day person with no filter would say it – “You don’t know me!” But Jesus did know him. He said, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” The fig tree was often used as a nationalistic symbol of Israel. As such, many devout Jews viewed the fig tree as an ideal place of devotion. There they would go to sit alone and pray. So, who would have known that Nathanael had been there at the fig tree? After all, he had been alone with God. And when it dawned on Nathanael that this God was standing in his presence now in the person of Messiah Jesus, he says, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.” As boldly and confidently as he had asserted his views about Nazareth, he proclaims his faith in Christ.

You have to love this guy. He speaks his mind. He isn’t out to deceive anyone – he tells you exactly what he’s thinking. The church still has folks like this. It can be a good thing. Often we don’t know how to take these folks, and we get offended at their transparent and brutal honesty. But there is no need for offense. Rather we should appreciate the fact that these folks speak their minds rather than smiling to our face and deceitfully saying something else behind our backs. I have learned to appreciate Nathaniels who say things that are sometimes hurtful, but are always transparent. They help us to see things as they are.

VII. Matthew: The One With a Past

Matthew was introduced to us in Mark 2 as Levi. In that passage, he is called a son of Alphaeus, which leads us to believe that he has a brother who one of the twelve also, James the Son of Alphaeus, or James the Less. Matthew was of the tribe of Levi. They were the priestly tribe. They were to be the rabbis, the worship leaders, the servants of God among the people. But Matthew had chosen a different road to travel. In spite of the traditions and heritage that had been handed down to him as a member of this special family of Israelites, it seems that Matthew followed a love of money. We are introduced to him as a tax-collector. As such, he would have volunteered his services to the oppressive Roman government and prospered financially by overtaxing his own Jewish kinsmen. Because of this, they were among the most hated people in Israel. They were viewed as traitors and extortionists.

Jesus confronted Matthew at the tax booth, and called him to follow. Now one might think that a guy like Matthew would make for a good treasurer – a financier for the fledgling followers of Christ. But that is not the case. In fact, Judas Iscariot was the keeper of the money box (and we are even told that he used to pilfer it). When faced with the demand to pay a temple tax, Jesus didn’t ask Matthew to find a loophole or to pull any strings. Instead He sent Peter to go catch a fish, and in the fish’s mouth was the money to pay the tax. Why would Jesus not use Matthew? Because this tax-collecting was part of his past, a part that he was ashamed of, and a part that he had been cleansed from. Once he left the tax booth to follow Jesus, we never find his name associated with money again. Instead, he became a sort of historian for the apostles. He gives us the longest account of the life of Christ, with well over half of his gospel containing the very words of Christ. And his Gospel is written from the perspective of a faithful Jew, evidence of a life-change that took place as he encountered Jesus.

You might have a past that you are ashamed of too. Many of us do in fact. But that doesn’t mean that Jesus can never use us. He will transform us, cleanse us of the sins of our past, and never bring it up again. Psalm 103:12 says, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.” If it’s in the past, leave it there. Don’t bring it up again, because Christ doesn’t intend to bring it up anymore either.

VII. Thomas: The Skeptic

Three times in the Gospel of John we read that Thomas was also called “Didymus,” a word meaning “twin.” Apparently he had a twin sibling, but we are never told anything about that twin in Scripture. In fact, we are told surprisingly little about Thomas. We have given him a nickname that is not found in Scripture – what is it? Doubting Thomas. But I think that is a little bit of an unfair assessment of him. He wasn’t so much of a doubter as he was a skeptic. There is a difference. It depends on where you are in relation to the evidence. A skeptic is someone who doesn’t believe because they haven’t seen the evidence. A doubter is someone who doesn’t believe even though they have seen the evidence. Thomas was a skeptic. It was a part of who he was.

We find Thomas in John 11, where Jesus is informed about Lazarus falling ill. After a while, Jesus says to the twelve, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples weren’t too crazy about that idea because the last time they were there, the people tried to stone Jesus. When Jesus insisted on going, Thomas spoke up and said, “Let us also go.” But it wasn’t a confident, cheerful, encouraging pep talk he was giving. What he said was, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” Now, I had this professor in seminary who said that a friend of his had worked for a major technology company as an engineer, and that they had discovered that silicone can “store up” sound. Now I don’t remember all the specifics about how he said this happened, but the idea was that if there was a way to “play” silicone particles found in rocks or sand, we might be able to hear recordings of sounds that had occurred before. But I think they gave up on the project because they could not find a way to play back the silicone. That’s a shame, because I’d really like to hear a recording Thomas saying this, simply because I think it would sound like Eeyore. Have you ever heard Eeyore? That is how I think Thomas would sound. “Come one everyone, let’s go die.” Where was the faith that looks at this situation and sees the glory of God on display? All he sees is the worst case scenario. But what happened? They did not join Lazarus in death, but Lazarus joined them in life and the glory of Christ was made manifest through this miraculous event.

Thomas was an outspoken pessimist. We see this in John 14 in the upper room. After Jesus says, “I go to prepare a place for you,” He also said, “You know the way where I am going.” Now this is where you need a picture Bible. Because what you would see in a picture Bible here is the twelve looking like a freshman philosophy class who has just had their mind blown but doesn’t want to admit it. So, they nod their heads as in agreement and scratch their chins, and say, “Ah. yes.” But meanwhile inside they are all saying, “What on earth is He talking about?” Well, Thomas is not that way. he just speaks up and says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, how do we know the way?” And I think meanwhile the rest of the guys are thinking, “Whew! I’m glad he asked that.” Now, we may criticize Thomas and say, “Look at that doubter, speaking out with such lack of faith.” But we ought to be glad that some skeptics ask hard questions, because it is from them that we get to learn important answers. If Thomas had not asked this question in John 14:5, then we may not have the important response of Jesus in John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”

Of course the most famous chapter of Thomas’s life comes after the Cross, and after all the rest of the disciples had already seen the risen Lord. One has to wonder why Thomas wasn’t with them when they saw Jesus. Perhaps he was off somewhere sulking like Eeyore: “They’ve killed him. I tried to tell him to stay away from this place, but He wouldn’t listen. So they killed him. He is dead.” Maybe he was using the same excuses people use today to avoid being in church. Who wants to be around a bunch of hypocrites? It is more important for me to rest. I need to spend some time with my twin brother. And so on. Whatever the case, when they finally told Thomas that they had seen the risen Lord, Thomas’s response is typical: “Unless I see in his hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” And it wasn’t long after that, he got just what he asked for. And when he saw the evidence, he pronounced, “My Lord and my God!” The skeptic was convinced. And tradition tells us that Thomas went on to be a bold preacher and defender of the faith, and died the death of a martyr.

It is said that when Robert Fulton invented the steamboat, that skeptics stood on the banks of the river and shouted, “You’ll never get it started.” But once that boat got moving under all that steam power, they began to shout, “You’ll never get it stopped.” I really don’t think that story is true, but it reveals the nature of pessimists, skeptics and doubters. They sit back and wait for someone to raise a balloon of hope, just so they can take aim and shoot it down. But if, like Thomas, they can ever become convinced, they will be deeply committed and unwavering in their allegiance to truth. Like that steamboat, they are hard to get started, but once they do, they are near impossible to get stopped.

Now, as I said last week, the easy thing to do as we listen to descriptions about these twelve disciples of Jesus is to think about all the ways other people are like them. But the more important question is, “How am I like these men? How can I be more like them? How might I need to be less like them?” Perhaps today, you recognize that you are like Philip – a very reasonable and practical thinker. A very good thing, but do you find yourself blinded to spiritual realities that are just as true and real as tangible objects and quantifiable measurements? Ask God to help you today to see the unseen, without losing sight of that practical wisdom that helps to guide us all.

Or it may be the case that you are like Matthew. You have a past that looms behind you causing you much shame. But rather than allowing that to paralyze you from serving God, allow Him to take it and cleanse you and put you into His service in new and different ways. No matter what you have done in the past, if you will come to Christ here in the present, He can make something glorious of your future, just like He did for Matthew.

Are you like Bartholomew? Do you always speak your mind? If so, that can be a very good thing, but perhaps you need to ask the Lord to temper you with His grace so that your words are not hurtful to others and so that you make careful, sound judgments before speaking out hastily.

Or are you like Thomas? Do you find yourself saying, “Every silver lining has a dark cloud.” Pessimistic, skeptical, always needing evidence to be convinced. That is not always bad. You will be the last one to fall for deception. But you may also be the last one to accept the truth too. Ask God to give you discernment and wisdom, to help you anchor your confidence in Christ so that you can enjoy the hope that He has secured for us.

As different as each of these men are, they have some things in common. One is that they were all lost and separated from God because of their sins. Another is that by turning their lives over to Jesus Christ, they encountered God’s love and grace, and found forgiveness of their sins and eternal life. And you can be like them in this as well. Jesus Christ died on Calvary’s cross to receive the punishment that you and I deserve for our sins, and He has risen from the dead in victory. If you will turn from sin and trust in Him today, you can be transformed just as these individuals were 2000 years ago. Jesus Christ is still in the business of changing lives, so you can let Him change yours today.

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