Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Problem with Politics

If I were to write all that needs to be said about this topic, The Problem With Politics, I would certainly exceed my space limitations on Blogger. However, one person's quotes in today's Greensboro News & Record live blog coverage of Obama's visit to the Gate City sums it up pretty well.

A 49 year old graduate student arrived at the War Memorial Auditorium at 5:10 this morning and was the first person in line to get in. She said, "I want to look into Barack Obama's eyes," she said. "I want to have a personal experience with him." She went on to say, "I'm really ready for not just change but absolute change."

Herein lies the problem: Politicians promise, sometimes explicit and other times implicit, to deliver FAR more than they possibly can. Absolute change will never occur through the political process. Absolute change can only occur through the renovation of the heart that is only possible when one has a "personal experience," not with a charismatic politician, but with the King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus Christ. It is not until an individual looks into His eyes that they will undergo absolute change. And when that change comes over several individuals, a family experiences change. When several families experience this kind of change, communities are changed. When several communities are changed, cities are changed. When several cities are changed, states and nations are changed. When several nations are changed, the world changes. So our hope for change is only in Christ, and is found only in His Gospel.

A well-respected police chief of a major city once told me, in my very early days of ministry, "The heart of the problem is the problem is the problem of the heart." That police chief understood that external change cannot produce the necessary internal changes. Painting the barn on the outside doesn't change the fact that it is full of manure on the inside. An inside change is what we need, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only way that change can happen.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Reasons to Believe in the Risen Jesus (1 Cor 15:1-11)

Audio available here. (click to stream, right-click to download)

He was raised in a Christian home, baptized as a child into the church of his parents. His wife’s parents were killed during a war-time pogrom for possessing Christian icons in their home. Yet, this man went on to be the leader of the strongest Communist nation in the world, admitting publicly at various times that he was an atheist. While others wondered if he might not be secretly more religious than his public position would allow him to admit, he held fast to the godless belief system entailed by his political persuasion. After his Communist government collapsed, he opened up a little more, confessing to be a pantheist, saying “Nature is my god.” However, now at the age of 77 years old, the British newspaper Telegraph reveals this week that Mikhail Gorbachev is finally comfortable admitting that he is in fact a Christian[1]

Once upon a time in Russia, it would not be uncommon to hear hardened old-line Communists say spitefully, “I will believe that Jesus rose from the dead when the atheist leader of the Soviet Union becomes a Christian.”[2] Well, now that Mikhail Gorbachev is openly confessing his Christian faith, one wonders how many others will admiringly follow him to faith in Christ? Or will they instead say that old age has caused him to seek the spiritual comfort of belief in the afterlife, or that he has slipped intellectually into a belief in myths and fairy tales?

We have come to expect that each year around the major holidays, certain traditions will recur like clockwork. There will be picnics at the fourth of July, parades at Thanksgiving, countless reshowings of The Grinch at Christmas. But in recent years, a new Easter tradition has come about. During the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, one can expect numerous documentaries to air on television which seek to debunk the Christian faith by arguing against the historicity of the claim that Jesus is risen from the dead. Belief in the resurrection is not an optional or insignificant element of Christianity. You will recall that the Apostle Paul says in Romans 10:9, “that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” No less than 104 times in the New testament, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is addressed. And here in this text we read this morning, he says that the resurrection is an essential component of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And so, it should come as no surprise that this doctrine finds itself under attack perennially. The critics of Christianity understand perhaps more than many Christians that if they can undermine our confidence in the resurrection, they can effectually neuter the Christian faith of its power. And this is not a new phenomenon. Opponents of Christianity have sought for two millennia to debunk the resurrection, without success.

Think of it like this. Hinduism teaches that Krishna was a divine incarnation of the god Vishnu who was born on in late July in 3228 BC. But do you find the media airing midsummer specials debunking the belief of Krishna’s deity? No. One of Islam’s most holy days is Eid al-Adha, which occurs 70 days after Ramadan. This day commemorates the day that Abraham took his son to be sacrificed, only Muslims believe that it was Ishmael, and not Isaac whom God commanded to be sacrificed. Yet, in the months following Ramadan, one does not find a flurry of books being published to combat the notion that Ishmael was taken rather than Isaac. Scientology was founded by a man named L. Ron Hubbard, who prior to the start of this religion was a starving science-fiction writer. In fact, Hubbard is known to have stated once at a science-fiction convention that the fastest way for someone to become a millionaire in America would be to start his own religion. However, when a celebrity openly attests faith in Scientology, is he criticized or accused of anti-intellectualism? No, usually he or she is celebrated in the media. Why is it that only Christianity, and in particular the Christian doctrine of the Resurrection of Jesus, comes under such frequent attack? Because the fact is that if Jesus rose from the dead, then such a miracle would validate every claim of the Christian faith and make it ultimately impossible to ignore. If Jesus is risen from the dead, then Christianity is not just another set of mythological fairy tales, but in fact is Truth (with a capital T), and each of us becomes accountable to responding to the Gospel’s claims.

So, is it true? Did Jesus in fact rise from the dead. My thesis is that He did, and in what follows, I will seek to present convincing evidence of support for that claim.

I will remind you that Paul is writing here in our text to the Corinthian Christians, a church which had become so distracted, so divided, so deceived by many unnecessary things, that he deemed it fitting to remind them of the truths that matter most. And so he says here that they must know the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as it centers around the fact that Christ died for our sins according to Scripture, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to Scripture. If the message of Christianity is that Jesus died and was buried, then Jesus is no different than any other human being who has ever lived. But we claim that He was different, and His death was different than any other death experienced by man. Jesus died for our sins, a claim that He made Himself and that others made concerning Him. But these claims are hardly believable unless some proof can be offered that demonstrates He was able to atone for those sins and be vindicated by God following His suffering. This proof is found in His resurrection.

Historian Kenneth Scott Latourete writes, “It was the conviction of the resurrection of Jesus which lifted his followers out of the despair into which his death had cast them and which led to the perpetuation of the movement begun by Him. But for their profound belief that the crucified had risen from the dead and they had seen him and talked with him, the death of Jesus and even Jesus himself would probably have been all but forgotten.” Similarly, H.D.A. Major has written, “Had the crucifixion of Jesus ended his disciples’ experience of Him, it is hard to see how the Chrisitan Church could have come into existence. That Church was founded on faith in the Messiahship of Jesus. A crucified Messiah was no Messiah at all. … It was the resurrection of Jesus, as St. Paul declares in Romans 1:4, which proclaimed Him to be the Son of God with power.”

Now you will notice that Paul does not say here that Christ was risen and that we should just take his word for it. No, rather, he seeks to validate the resurrection of Christ by pointing to evidence that supports that claim. So many times people think that becoming a follower of Christ means taking an intellectual flying leap, checking your brains at the door, and foolishly buying into an unbelievable myth. You have heard it said by many that Christianity is a just crutch for weak-minded people. However, the fact is that God does not expect us to follow along in spite of evidence. God has given us evidence to confirm that our faith is rightly focused. It is not a leap in the dark, but a step toward the light. The evidence for belief in Christ and His resurrection is as strong as any other historical fact. Consider the evidence found in this passage alone:

I. The Evidence of Scripture (v4) (according to Scripture)

Luke 24:44-48 records that when the Risen Jesus appeared to His disciples, He said to them: "These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

So, in referring to the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms, Jesus says in essence, “The whole OT testifies to this.” The Hebrew Bible that we now call the Old Testament, was divided into three parts: Torah (Law), Nevi’im (prophets), and Kethuvim (writings). Therefore it became known as Tanakh: an acrostic based on the consonants TNK for those three divisions. Jesus Christ is saying to His followers that for centuries, it had been prophesied that I would come, and I would die, and I would rise again.

It is widely agreed by many scholars that the book of Job was the first book of Scripture written down. In this ancient book, Job declares a great affirmation of faith in Job 19:25-27-- "And as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. 26 "Even after my skin is destroyed, Yet from my flesh I shall see God; 27 Whom I myself shall behold, And whom my eyes shall see and not another. My heart faints within me.”

You recall how Jesus answered the Jews who wanted a sign:

& Matthew 12-- 39 But He answered and said to them, "An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; 40 for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Jesus, Peter, and Paul all referred to Old Testament scriptures in discussing the resurrection. Genesis 22, Psalm 16, Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, and Hosea 6:2 are among their favorites. And these passages indicate that support for the resurrection of Christ can be found in every portion of the Old Testament. Genesis is from the Torah, the Law; the Psalms are from the Kethubim, or the Writings; Isaiah and Hosea are from the Nebiim, or the Prophets. Now some will accuse of a logical fallacy here, claiming that we are using a circular argument. They will say that we cannot use the Bible to prove the Bible. However, these have misunderstood what the Bible is. The Bible is not one book written by one man or assembled by one committee. The Bible is a collection of writings that were penned over the course of 1500 years by various people from all different walks of life, most of whom never knew each other. And the Old Testament writings which we hold to be authoritative were collected in the form we now have them before the time of Christ. And so the early Christians were not pointing to their own writings to validate Scripturally the resurrection of Jesus, but rather were pointing to treasured writings of ancient Israel, which had long stood the test of time.

And these Scriptures, the Old Testament Scriptures, written centuries before, affirm that in time God would send a Messiah, would not only die, but would rise again. But there will still be some who believe in the Scriptures, and who say that this is evidence is not sufficient. So, what evidence shall we give to them?

II. The evidence of eyewitnesses (v5-7)

We could say anything we want about a person after he has died. We can even say that he is risen from the dead, but that would be easily disproven. Just go dig up the grave and see if it is empty. If it is empty, that is still no guarantee. There are other explanations that could suffice to explain the empty tomb. We might also say, “I will believe it when I see him face to face.” We criticize Thomas for his skepticism, but we must say we would be just as skeptical about the claim that someone who was dead was no longer. Two words of the text we have read today are crucial: He appeared. And the eyewitnesses to whom He appeared are powerful evidence that He is risen indeed.

A. The Abundance of Eyewitnesses (5-8)

In Deuteronomy 19:15, a principle is given to cover matters of government and judgment: “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.” If two or three witnesses is enough to confirm a thing, then how much more sure is something witnessed by no less than 640 eyewitnesses?

In verses 5-8, we read of no less than 514 eyewitnesses: Cephas (Peter); The Twelve; More than 500 Brethren at one time; James; and Paul himself, in an unnatural encounter on the Damascus Road. Elsewhere in the NT, we read of at least 126 other eyewitnesses. Mary Magdalene (John 20); Joanna and Mary (Luke 24); Annas and Cleopas (Luke 24); 120 people (Acts 1); and again in an unnatural vision, Stephen (Acts 7). So that is at least 640 different people who saw the risen Jesus after His bodily resurrection. If you were on a jury, and you were deliberating this case, after how many of these would you say, “OK, we’ve heard enough.” No case would require more than 640 eyewitnesses to identify a person. But you say, “Well, how do we know any of this is true? How do we know Paul wasn’t making it up?” One statement confirms it, as Paul points not only to the abundance of eyewitnesses, but also to …

B. The Availability of Eyewitnesses (v6)

“Most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep.” In speaking of sleep here, Paul does not mean sleep like some of you are wanting to do now. Rather, he is speaking euphemistically of death, as was common in his day. Obviously by our own day, all of these have died, but when Paul wrote this letter, he indicated that most of those who had seen Jesus after His resurrection were still alive and could be consulted about the matter. Any person in Corinth who doubted the reality of Christ’s resurrection could have sent correspondence or traveled to Jerusalem and sought out any of these 640 people who could validate their eyewitness accounts of His resurrection.

The testimony of eyewitnesses is powerful! In fact, as Luke compiled information to send to his dear friend Theophilus, he said that Jesus had, “presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing (or, infallible) proofs” (Acts 1:3).

The evidence of Scripture and the evidence of eyewitnesses ought to be enough to convince anyone of the reality of Christ’s resurrection. But if spiritual evidence and eyewitness evidence are not enough, then perhaps practical evidence will be, as we see …

III. The Evidence of Changed Lives (v8-11)

“Last of all,” Paul says, “as it were to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.” For much of Paul’s career, people doubted his claim to be an apostle. They said he hadn’t even seen Jesus, so how could he call himself an apostle. But Paul said that Christ appeared to him last of all, “as to one born at the wrong time.”

Do you recall how Paul’s life was changed as he met Jesus? We find him first in Acts 7:58, in hearty agreement with the martyrdom of Stephen. So convinced was Paul that these Christians were blasphemous heretics, he began persecuting the Church with great intensity. Acts 8:3 says that he began ravaging the church, entering house after house, dragging off men and women and putting them in prison. Acts 9:1 says that he was breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. So he sought permission to pursue them violently and that permission was given.

But then Saul (which was his Hebrew name) met Jesus. After this encounter on the Damascus Road, his life was radically changed: Acts 9:20-22 says, “immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, "Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests? But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ.” His changed life and his reasoning from the Hebrew Scriptures was considered proof to them that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior of the World.

So he says in 1 Cor 15:9-10 that he is not fit to be called an apostle because of his past, but God’s grace made him an apostle through that encounter with the risen Christ, and compelled him to be the most fervent laborer in God’s Kingdom-building work.

And we might point to hundreds and thousands of other godless people whose lives have been radically altered by meeting Christ. Josh McDowell was an intellectual young man who ambitiously set out to disprove the resurrection of Christ, but soon found that he could not, and he became a follower of Christ. Today is one of the world’s most influential evangelists. C. S. Lewis was an atheist with no appetite for the things of God, until he encountered Christ in a personal way. Following his conversion, Lewis was asked by the BBC to air a series of talks on the Christian faith for all England to hear during World War II. These talks have been preserved for us in his book “Mere Christianity,” a book which has been used to persuade countless atheists and skeptics toward faith in Christ. On and on we could list those who are well-known examples of people who the Risen Christ has transformed. By the time I was a teenager, I was a thoroughly convinced and committed atheist. Yet, as I read the Bible for the first time, and considered the very reasonable claims of Christ, I was convinced that God was there, and that He was pursuing me and calling me into a relationship with Christ. I run into people all the time whom I haven’t seen for many years, and they say, “What are you doing these days?” I say to them, “I am a Southern Baptist Pastor!” When they return to consciousness, they ask how on earth that could be possible. My conversion, and the conversion of Paul and many others including those I have mentioned, really doesn’t make sense unless you allow that Jesus is alive and is still in the life-changing business.

Thus far, we have considered theological evidence: long before the birth of Christ, His life, His death, and His resurrection were prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures. We have considered testimonial evidence: over 640 eyewitnesses to the Risen Christ are mentioned in Scripture, and Paul invited his readers in his day to contact them for further inquiry, since most of them were still alive that point. We have considered existential evidence: lives that underwent radical change through an encounter with Jesus Christ.

In addition to this, we have the testimony of the empty tomb as a evidence of the resurrection. I have already said that an empty tomb by itself is no evidence. But, an empty tomb with no other reasonable explanation is. Some have attempted to suggest many other theories of how the tomb of Jesus became empty.

It has been suggested that Jesus’ body was stolen by his disciples, and they made up the story of his resurrection. This was, in fact, the first alternative theory ever offered to explain the empty tomb. The chief priests, the elders, and the soldiers who guarded the tomb of Christ concocted this explanation when the tomb was found to be empty on that first Easter Sunday (Matthew 28:11-15). Yet people continue to advance this theory as if it was cutting edge scholarship. But, if it was all a lie, why then did so many of the earliest Christians die for their belief in the resurrection? You say, “Well, people die for lies all the time.” We need only think of Islamic terrorists who kill themselves and multitudes of others for Mohammed’s lie that death in jihad will transport them instantly to a heavenly garden to be attended to by 70 virgins. And how about the followers of cults who have committed mass suicide in obedience to their leader’s demands? Indeed, people die every day for the sake of a lie, but all do so believing that lie to be the truth. No one dies for a lie that they know is a lie. And if the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus, then they would have certainly known that His resurrection was a lie. And if they had known it was a lie, do you think they would have suffered and died for Him?

John suffered imprisonment and exile at Patmos. Some ancient traditions state that prior to this, he was tortured by being plunged into a caldron of boiling oil. Peter, Andrew, James the Less, Philip, Simon Zealotes, and Bartholomew were all crucified. Matthew and James, brother of John, were both killed by the sword. Thaddaeus (the other Judas) was killed by arrows. Thomas was run through with a spear while he was preaching. Paul was beheaded in Rome. Matthias died either by crucifixion or by stoning, and then his dead body was beheaded. And yet surely one of them would have recanted and fessed up if they had been party to stealing the body of Jesus. They did not. They sealed their testimony of Christ’s resurrection with their own blood.

Others have said that the body was stolen by the political and religious leaders of Jesus’ day. This is an even more ridiculous suggestion. First of all, they had no motive for stealing the body, and if they had stolen it, they would have surely put the body on display in order to prove that the resurrection did not occur. But that did not happen.

Others have said that the disciples went to the wrong tomb. While that was a possibility for the initial group that went to the tomb, the fact remains that the tomb was owned by Joseph of Arimathea, who could have then pointed them to the right tomb, or otherwise, the religious and political leaders of the day would have. Most certainly, this does not explain the empty tomb of Christ.

Still others have said that Jesus did not really die. They say that He merely fainted on the cross, but after being placed in the tomb, he regained consciousness and escaped from the tomb. I would remind you that we are talking about an individual who was beaten, whipped, and scourged beyond recognition; He was nailed to a cross with spikes in his wrists and feet; He was pierced in the side by a spear, breaking his pericardial sack and causing blood and water to flow out. Now, am I supposed to believe that this person did not really die, but rehabilitated himself to the point that within three days (with no food or water, mind you) he could move a massive stone, fight off an entire regiment of soldiers, and present himself alive and well to his followers? With all due respect, I believe that it would take much more faith for me to believe that than to believe that He rose from the dead.

There simply are no other believable theories as to how that Jerusalem tomb came to be found empty. Christian Philosopher Winfried Corduan presented this information to his class on one occasion, and was challenged by a student who offered this nonsensical explanation: “Jesus’ body was consumed in the tomb by a new strain of mutant bacteria that evolved within the tomb, totally devouring the body, leaving the linen wrappings exactly in place.”[3] This falls into category with alien abductions and the like. While no intellectually reasonable person would ever espouse such views, they are no more far-fetched than the other more popular alternate explanations which seek to avoid the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead, just as He said He would. When it is all said and done, the most believable hypothesis, the one with the most evidence to substantiate it, is that Jesus Christ arose from the dead.

Sir Edward Clarke, a once prominent English attorney for King’s Court said, “As a lawyer, I have made a prolonged study of the evidences for the events of the first Easter day. For me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the high court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling.”

Historian Thomas Arnold said, “The evidence for our Lord’s life and death and resurrection may be and often has been shown to be satisfactory. It is good according to the common rules for distinguishing good evidence from bad. Thousands and tens of thousands of persons have gone through it piece by piece as carefully as every judge summing up on an important case. … I know of no one fact in the history of mankind which is better proved by fuller evidence than the great sign that God has given us that Christ died and rose again from the dead.”

In John 11:25-26, Jesus said, “"I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.” And after that statement, He asked a very important question: “Do you believe this?” Do you? If not, why not? I suggest that if you do not believe it, it is not because of the evidence, but rather in spite of it.



[3] Adapted from Corduan, No Doubt About It, p226.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Quest for True Greatness > Mark 9:33-37

(Audio will not be available for download this week. For a copy of the tape, contact Immanuel Baptist Church at

As an avid sports fan, I was very interested in ESPN’s recent series of features on the greatest sports highlight of all time. As a hockey fan, I was glad to see that the Team USA Gold Medal in Hockey in 1980 was finally named the greatest highlight. Sports is an arena where there is always an ongoing discussion of greatness. We debate with other fans about the greatest quarterback, the greatest team, the greatest victory, the greatest play. In the sport of boxing, Muhammad Ali is known as the Greatest of All Time, or G.O.A.T. for short. If you don’t believe that, just ask Muhammad Ali, and he will tell you that he is the greatest. In 2002, Karl Evanzz published a collection of quotations and anecdotes from Ali’s life entitled, I Am the Greatest, a personal and frequently stated motto of Muhammad Ali. In that collection, a humorous story of uncertain authenticity is told about an incident that allegedly occurred on an airplane. As the plane prepared for takeoff, a flight attendant asked Ali to fasten his seatbelt, to which Ali replied, “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.” Not to be outdone by the boxer, the flight attendant retorted, “Superman don’t need no airplane either.” In that episode, it appears that Ali’s self-proclaimed greatness was momentarily eclipsed by the greatness of the of the one who job it was to serve him on that journey.

The quest for greatness is a universal phenomenon. It is not necessarily a bad thing for a person to aspire to greatness. After all, we should always seek to be the best and do the best we possibly can in any task. Greatness is applauded and awarded on many levels in human life everywhere people are found. When I was in Kenya on a mission trip, my partner broke out a paddle-ball toy for the children to play with. It wasn’t long before the adults became enamored with the thing and began taking turns paddling the ball, and soon enough a contest ensued to see who was the greatest paddle-baller of Kibabamuche. When one of the men outdid the rest, all the others began to applaud and one said, “We should give you a certificate!”

Because we have all experienced this desire to achieve greatness and gain recognition for our accomplishments, we are not surprised to find that the disciples of Jesus also had this desire to be great. A survey of the context will help us see how the discussion of greatness came about. Jesus had chosen Peter, James, and John to accompany Him up the mountain where they would witness His glorious transfiguration. The rest of the disciples had remained at the foot of the mountain where they were requested to perform an exorcism and healing miracle—a request they were unable to fulfill. This may have sparked a sense of “one-up-man-ship” among those who had been to the mountain peak. Add to this the statements of Jesus concerning His impending death, and we can see the makings of a controversy over who will be the leadership heir of the movement. And so a conversation had taken place as they traveled through Galilee toward Capernaum. I say “a conversation,” but in fact the Greek word used by Jesus in verse 33 means literally, “to discuss, dispute, or engage in a detailed discussion.” The word Mark uses in verse 34 carries the notion of a contention. We would not be out of bounds to say they were having an argument about who among them was the greatest.

Jesus asks the disciples in v33, “What were you discussing on the way?” They had supposed that Jesus was unaware of their dispute, but they, and we, must come to learn that NOTHING takes place in our lives of which Jesus is unaware. He hears every word we say and sees everything we do. Moreover, He is even aware of the motives and intentions of our hearts. His question is not an attempt to gain new information from them. Rather, it is an invitation for them to come clean in confession before Him. It is similar to the question God asked Adam in Genesis 3:9 – “Where are you.” God knew exactly where Adam was, but He was inviting Adam to confess his sin. So here, the question challenges the disciples to bring into the open this debate which they thought had taken place unbeknownst to Jesus.[1] I repeat, nothing in our lives takes place unbeknownst to Jesus. We must remember that. And what does Jesus’ question evoke from the disciples? Silence. But their silence was a wordless confession their sin and their shame.

In verse 35 we read that Jesus sat down and called the disciples to Himself. In the ancient world, to sit and teach was to assume the position of an authoritative teacher, as we see elsewhere in the teaching narratives of the New Testament. And as He begins to instruct them, He doesn’t rub their noses in the shame of their self-centered and silly strife, but rather takes the opportunity to teach them a much more valuable lesson about what it means to be great in the Kingdom of God.

Following Christ is the ultimate counter-cultural movement. The world is marching in one direction to the beat of one drum, and the followers of Christ are marching to a very different beat, in a very different direction. And perhaps nowhere “does the way of Jesus diverge more sharply from the way of the world than on the question of greatness.”[2] And so if we desire to be great (and who among us doesn’t have this desire?), we must learn what it means to be great in the eyes of God, for His standard of greatness is far different from that of the world. With this in mind, let’s dive into the text and see how Jesus defines and demonstrates true greatness.

I. Jesus Defines True Greatness For Us (v35)

I find the word “greatness” in my Webster’s College Dictionary sandwiched between the entries for “greasy spoon” and “Great Abaco.” There it is listed as the noun form of the adjective “great,” which has twenty numbered definitions, including: unusually or comparatively large in size or dimensions; big; unusual or considerable in degree, power or intensity; first-rate, excellent; notable, remarkable; important; highly significant; distinguished, famous; of noble or lofty character; chief or principle; of high rank or social standing; etc. These, among others, are given as the world’s understanding of the meaning of greatness. But Jesus presents us with a different definition than this.

A. Jesus acknowledges the desire for greatness.

You will notice that nowhere in the passage does Jesus condemn the desire for greatness. He does not rebuke the disciples for wanting to be great. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be great. The problem comes when one pursues the world’s standard of greatness with no regard for God’s standard of greatness. So Jesus issues a corrective here as he says, “If anyone wants to be first …,” as if to say, “It isn’t wrong to want to be great. But you must know what true greatness in the eyes of God entails. And then …

B. Jesus declares the way to greatness.

One becomes great in the eyes of God as one becomes last of all and servant of all. These phrases “last of all” and “servant of all,” are not just two ways of saying the same thing. One is passive. Becoming “last of all” means that one is willing to step back and allow others to take precedence over themselves. The other is active. To be “servant of all” is to engage in a duty, it is to take action to meet the needs of others, no matter how lowly the task. This was as radically different from the prevailing secular mindset of Jesus’ day as it is from that in our own day.

Plato said, “How can a man be happy when he has to serve someone?”[3] That pretty much sums up the prevailing mindset about this notion of servanthood. It was considered a demeaning and undignified existence. But Jesus turns this on its head and indicates that servanthood is not merely a path to happiness, but the pathway to true greatness. Whereas the world’s notion of greatness involves a man climbing to the top of a pyramid to stand alone at its peak being served by all those under him, Jesus turns the pyramid upside down and says that true greatness involves standing alone on the bottom, serving all those above you. Others become more important than self, and not just those others who are considered important in the eyes of the world, but Jesus says, ALL. We must become last of all, and servant of all. We are not to evaluate with worldly standards who is worthy of being served by us. We are to treat all men the same, becoming a servant to them all.

The Greek word for servant used here is a word with which you are familiar. It is the word diakonos, which becomes the basis for our English word deacon. However, we must not understand this passage through the lens of our common conception, or misconception as it may be, of the church office of deacon. That has become in many churches a label of status and prestige. That is not what Jesus had in mind. Rather, we need to define deacon ministry in terms of this passage and others like it that clearly specify what this kind of servanthood involves. The word was commonly used in the ancient world to speak of waiting on tables. It is the humble task of meeting the needs of those around us, no matter who they are. And this is not reserved for a special group within the church – it is the responsibility of every follower of Christ to serve others.

Recently a ministry colleague asked me if I knew the difference between serving and being a servant. I confessed to him that I thought they were the same. But he corrected me gently by saying, “No, if I say I am here to serve, then it means I get to decide who I serve, how I serve, and when I serve. But if I am a servant, then I don’t get to make that choice. I must serve every person, in any way necessary, whenever the task requires it.” I stood humbly corrected, and convicted upon looking at it in that way. I think my friend has truly understood greatness the way God views it.

Greatness in the Kingdom of God is not reserved for those who are particularly gifted or especially privileged. Rather, each of us has the potential for greatness as we take up the common and ordinary task of serving other people. The more common and humble the task, the greater the deed in God’s eyes.

Do you want to be truly great? Then you and I must put aside the world’s measures of greatness and seek greatness in the things that matter most to God. And nothing is greater in God’s eyes than that we serve on another. In this way we emulate Jesus, who will say later in Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many,” and in Luke 22:27, “I am among you as the one who serves.” We must begin to view opportunities to serve others not as interruptions, distractions, or inconveniences. We must view those opportunities as divine invitations to true greatness, wherein we will demonstrate our faithfulness to God and our willingness to be seen as unimportant in the eyes of man, but great in the eyes of God. If others will see Jesus in us, they will see Him as we serve them selflessly, making them more important than ourselves, as it were laying down our lives for theirs.

“If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.”

Not only does Jesus define true greatness for us, but also we see here that …

II. Jesus Demonstrates True Greatness for Us (vv36-37)

Christianity has many outspoken opponents in the world today. Yet those who belittle the Christian faith need to stop and consider how the Christian worldview has changed society as a whole for the better. One example of this is the way children are viewed. Today, for the most part, children are treasured and considered precious in the eyes of all mankind. But it has not always been this way. In Jesus’ day, children represented the lowest order of the social scale. They were thought of as “not having arrived” yet, and in many ways were considered to be unimportant in the eyes of the society. They were thought to have nothing to contribute; they were receivers, dependent on others for everything. This cultural context sheds light on that familiar passage we will come to in Mark 10:13, where people were bringing their children to Jesus, and the disciples began to rebuke them. They thought of children like everyone else did. They assumed that Jesus was far too important to be bothered with a bunch of children. But how did Jesus respond to the attitude of His disciples? It’s just there a few verses down from our text today in Mark 10:14 – “He became indignant,” or as we say here in the south, He was madder than a hornet’s nest. And He said, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them.” This was a revolutionary way of thinking about children.

Here in our text we read that Jesus took a child up in His arms and said, “Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me.” With these words, but more importantly with this action, Jesus demonstrates our great task and our great testimony.

A. Serving Others Is Our Great Task

In taking this child into His arms, Jesus indicates the greatness of our task of serving. His words indicate to us …

1. The Objects of Our Service (one child like this)

The words like this are very important here. With these words, Jesus indicates that the kind of greatness He is calling us to is not just demonstrated in our service to children, but in our service to those who are like them. We really don’t mind serving those who are considered important in the eyes of the world. If we were to bring a professional athlete up front here and say, “Is there anyone in the sanctuary who would be willing to take this man to lunch today,” we’d have a fight break out over who would get to do it. But what would our response be if we were to place a homeless person in that same place and ask the same? Do we really have to answer that question? We don’t mind helping someone who we think might be able to help us in return. Maybe if I take the athlete to lunch, he might give me some tickets to the game, or an autograph or something. At the very least, I will be able to brag to my friends that I shared a meal with someone really important. And I will look like a big-shot in front of all those people at the restaurant. But are we willing to help those who can offer us nothing in return? That is the question implied by the words like this. Those who are unimportant in the eyes of the world, those can offer us nothing in return, those who will be receivers only, these are the ones we must serve. Who is great in the eyes of God? The one who serves God by serving others, particularly when there’s nothing in it for me. It isn’t easy to do. It is entirely unnatural and goes against every inclination in our fabric of being. And that is why God thinks it so great. We have moved from the natural into the supernatural when we these become the objects of our service. And this brings us to …

2. The Manner of Our Service (In My Name)

When we do something “in the name of Jesus,” it is as if we are standing in His place, doing as He would do, doing it all for our love for Him, and for His glory. So the question is not, “What’s in it for me?” The question is, “What’s in it for Jesus?” He is glorified and honored through our serving, and others are brought to know Him as they see Him in us. We wear His name – we are Christians, and that name means “like Christ.” And if we are like Him then we will do what He does, as we do it in His name. It isn’t always easy, it isn’t always convenient, it isn’t always fun. But we must be honest with ourselves and with God and with those we are serving by saying, “I am doing this for Jesus. I’m doing it because I love Him, and I know He loves you; and because you are important to Him, then you’re important to Me. So I am doing it in His name.”

And this brings us to our final thought.

B. Serving Others Is Our Great Testimony

You are aware, no doubt, that the culture around us finds it very offensive that Christians say that we have exclusive access to God because of our relationship with Jesus Christ. You see, we say that we have received God because we have received Christ. Christ says that if we have received God by receiving Him, it will be evident to all in the way we receive and serve those who are unimportant in the eyes of the world. And I suggest to you that the reason why the exclusive claims of Christianity are so offensive to the world around us is because they have not seen the outworking of our faith in the way Jesus describes here.

Celsus was a Greek writer in the second century who criticized Christianity as a threat to society. While we do not have most of what he wrote originally, much of it has been preserved in the writings of the third century Christian leader Origen, who sought to answer Celsus' criticisms. From reading Celsus’ criticisms of the Christian faith, we are able to see what outsiders thought about Christianity in its earliest years. Celsus writes, “The following are the rules laid down by them. Let no one come to us who has been instructed, or who is wise or prudent (for such qualifications are deemed evil by us); but if there be any ignorant, or unintelligent, or uninstructed, or foolish persons, let them come with confidence. By which words, acknowledging that such individuals are worthy of their God, they manifestly show that they desire and are able to gain over only the silly, and the mean, and the stupid, with women and children.” He goes on to speak of the class of people welcomed in by the Christian church as, “workers in wool and leather, and fullers, and persons of the most uninstructed and rustic character,” “foolish and low individuals, and persons devoid of perception, and slaves, and women, and children.” While Celsus’ words are intended to bring shame to the Christian church, instead they show plainly how the Church reached out with open arms to those who were despised and rejected by the world.

In the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate, so named because he had rejected the Christian faith he had been raised to embrace, wrote of the Christians in his day, marveling at their “benevolence toward strangers and care for the graves of the dead.” In spite of his rejection of the faith, he saw something in Christianity that was lacking in his paganism. He writes, “I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the [pagan] priests, the impious Galileans [a term of derision used against Christians] observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence.” He says, “The impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well; everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”

These quotations from the enemies of the Christian faith show that the early followers of Christ were seen by the world around them as people who indiscriminately and sacrificially served others, just as Jesus had commanded and demonstrated through His life and teaching. But I wonder if those outside the Christian faith today would say the same thing of us as Celsus and Julian said of the ancient church? If we want to demonstrate to the world the validity of our exclusive claim to know God through faith in Christ, we must demonstrate it through the posture of servanthood, just as Christ indicates here.

Who among us has not desired to be considered great in the eyes of others? In our text today, Jesus reminds us that what matters most is to be found great in the eyes of God, and the path to that true greatness is the path of servanthood. The need today is greater than ever for the Church of Jesus Christ and every individual member of it to humble ourselves in repentance for our self-centeredness and misguided ambitions and consecrate ourselves to demonstrating Christ’s love, His grace, and His mercy in our service to others. It means taking up the thankless tasks that may never be acknowledged on earth, but which will certainly not go unrewarded in heaven.

Christ has taught us, and Christ has modeled this for us, both in this episode with the little child, and ultimately in His death on the cross. The apostle Paul says in Philippians 2 that we should have this attitude in us which was also in Christ, “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow … and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”

Christ became a servant of humanity, ultimately giving His life for ours—dying the death we deserved for our sins on Calvary’s cross so that our sins could be forgiven and we could be reconciled to God. Some today within the sound of my voice may need to accept Him into their lives as Lord and Savior, and we would urge you to do just that. And many more of you perhaps already have done that, and committed your life to following Jesus. If you would follow Him, you would follow Him on the path of servanthood. And so in our closing moments, and in the days to come, will you make it a matter of prayer, asking God to help you become last of all and servant of all by meeting the needs of those you come into contact with as the Holy Spirit empowers and guides you. In so doing, you will be seen as great in the eyes of God, and because of you, Jesus Christ will be seen as great in the eyes of men.

[1] R. T. France, The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 373.

[2] James R. Edwards, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 287.

[3] Plato, Gorgias, 491e. Cited in Edwards, 282.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Understanding the Gospel: Mark 9:30-32

Audio available here. (Click to stream, right-click to download)

A Sunday School teacher was teaching a group of children about the Christian’s armor in Eph 6:13-17. She spoke of the breastplate of righteousness and the shield of faith, the belt of truth and the helmet of salvation. Then she said, “Paul also says we should carry a weapon, which he says is the Word of God. Do you remember what he called the Word of God?” There was no answer so she probed the class further, “It’s something very sharp, something that cuts.” Of course the correct answer is the Sword of the Spirit, but one of her more clever students spoke up with confidence and said, “I know. I know. It’s the axe of the Apostles!”

The boy has heard reference in church before to the “Acts (A-C-T-S) of the Apostles.” If our only exposure to the apostles comes from that portion of the New Testament, then we may well indeed think of them as sharp tools in the hands of God. At Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon them, they were transformed and empowered, and thereafter used mightily of God for His purposes in establishing the church of Jesus Christ. In fact, it may be more accurate to speak of the book of Acts as the Acts of the Holy Spirit, for it is He who works mightily through the Apostles in the days of the early church. However, the picture we get of the Apostles prior to Pentecost is much different. In fact, if we only had the picture we have seen thus far in the Gospel According to Mark, we would have to confess the axe is dull. They have been depicted thus far in less than glorious ways, primarily showing themselves to be spiritually dense, perpetually confused, seldom understanding, and often speaking in error.

But we must confess that we are often like them. We are often dull axes as well. We have difficulty understanding spiritual truth until the Holy Spirit inclines our hearts to understanding.

Like them, each person comes to the place where we are presented with the claims of the Gospel message of Jesus. And though the message is quite simple, we are so spiritually dense, so spiritually dead, that the message escapes our understanding and fear prevents us from confessing our ignorance and suspending our preconceived notions that we may rightly understand and receive God’s saving truth. When Jesus tells them of the things which will shortly come to pass, we are told that the disciples “did not understand” and “were afraid to ask.”

The setting is a journey through Galilee. Having left the area of the Mount of Transfiguration, which is most likely Mt. Hermon, Jesus and the disciples are now traveling through Galilee for the last time on the final journey to Jerusalem. Galilee has been the locus of Jesus’ life and ministry for the last three years. It is the native region of most of His followers. It is the place where He has taught much and performed many wondrous miracles. But this time, as He passes through the region, He knows that it will be for the last time.

Now, the text tells us in verse 30 that He did not want anyone to know about it. What did He not want anyone to know? He didn’t want them to know He was passing through the region. We have often spoken of this motif of secrecy in Mark’s Gospel. Frequently following a miracle or a teaching episode, there is a command for silence. In each of these episodes we have commented that the prevailing understanding of the Messiah and His mission is so distorted, that Jesus does not want people to be carried away in mistaken messianic fervor. Many believed that Messiah was coming to overthrow the oppression that Rome had instituted. Jesus did not want His coming to be the catalyst for a nationalistic revolution. Neither did He want to evoke the ire of His opponents over mistaken notions of what He was here to do. Not that Jesus shirked away from opposition, but when He was opposed, He wanted it to be on the basis of His message and His true mission – not on mistaken presumptions. So here, Jesus does not want the word to spread that He is passing through the region. The text tells us that the reason for this silence was because (v31) “He was teaching his disciples.” He needed this uninterrupted time with the twelve to convey to them once more in no uncertain terms what His mission to Jerusalem will entail. He has come to save humanity from sin, and that means that He must go to Jerusalem and complete the mission. He does not want anyone, for Him or against Him, to delay, distract, or derail that mission.

So as they traveled, He taught them. And from this text today, we want to examine what He taught the disciples and their reaction to this teaching. We will discuss the claims of the Gospel and the comprehension of the Gospel with a view toward understanding the Gospel better in our own lives, receiving this Gospel message and the salvation it offers us, and how we might better communicate this Gospel to others.

I. The Claims of the Gospel

Of the content of this itinerant lesson being taught, only one sentence is preserved in Mark. In v31, we read that Jesus was teaching them, “The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later.” This sentence is pregnant with meaning, as it reveals something of His title, His tribulation and His triumph. These are the central issue of the Gospel – Who Jesus is and what Jesus did. Without properly understanding these matters, we will never understand the good news of the Gospel.

A. His Title (The Son of Man)

It will be helpful for us to here review some information we discussed several weeks ago as we examined Mark 8:27-33. That passage contained Jesus first mention of His coming suffering in Jerusalem, and there, as here, He referred to Himself as “The Son of Man.” You may recall that we said then that this title is used by Jesus to refer to Himself some 80 times in the Gospels. In Mark, He uses the title 14 times. No one else ever refers to Him as the Son of Man. It is used only by Him, and only in reference to Himself. For those familiar with the Old Testament’s Messianic prophecies, this title has a very specific meaning attached to it. In the seventh chapter of Daniel, beginning at verse 13, we read:

“I kept looking in the night visions, And behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, And He came up to the Ancient of Days And was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, Glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; And His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.”

If Jesus were to speak of Himself with titles like “Christ” or “Messiah,” the people would supply their preconceived opinions about who He was and what He came to do. But by using this phrase “Son of Man,” Jesus is able to point to a specific antecedent from Daniel 7 that defines who He is. Fundamental to understanding the Gospel message of Christ is understanding who He is. He is the One prophesied in Scripture with divine characteristics who has come forth from the Father, the Ancient of Days, with authority and dominion, and glory, to establish a Kingdom that will consist of people from every tribe and nation and tongue who serve Him. And His Kingdom will be established forever.

In a sense, the whole of Mark’s Gospel builds up to answer the question of who Jesus is. If we knew nothing of Jesus, and this portion of the New Testament was all we had, we would see Him as one who comes on the scene being identified in the opening verse as the Son of God. The first verse serves as an introduction and a thesis. Jesus is the Son of God. By this, we do not mean to say that He is somehow less than God, but that He is of the same nature and substance as God. He is God in the flesh, incarnate as a man to fulfill the mission of the Messiah in saving humanity from sin. And then, as if he was unfolding an argument to substantiate this thesis, Mark begins to give us selected vignettes from the life of Christ. We see Him as One who is greater than John the Baptist (1:7); One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit (1:8); One who is anointed by the Holy Spirit and declared to be the Son of God by God the Father Himself (1:10-11); One who overcame temptation at the hands of Satan (1:13); One who preaches the Gospel of God, announcing the arrival of God’s kingdom and calling mankind to repentance (1:14-15); One who bids men to follow Him prompting them to leave all behind and come in faith and obedience after Him (1:16-20); One who teaches with divine authority (1:21-22); One who is recognized by demons as the Holy one of God (1:24) and the Son of the Most High God (5:7); One who has authority over demons (1:23-27); One who has the power to heal (1:30-31) and the authority to forgive sin (2:1-12); One who reaches out to sinners (2:15-17) and Gentiles (7:26-30); One who is Lord of the Sabbath (2:28); One who has come to establish a new family (3:31-35); One who has the power to control nature (4:37-41; 6:48); One who has the power to raise the dead (5:35-43); One who has the power to multiply resources (6:38-44; 8:5-9); One with authoritative insight into the Word of God (7:1-23); the Christ (8:29); the Son of Man (8:31); the One who is transfigured with divine glory (9:1-8); the One who has prophesied of His own death and resurrection (8:31; 9:9). Who is such a One as this? He is God in the flesh. And all of this is wrapped up in His use of the title “Son of Man.”

B. His Tribulation (9:31)

While those familiar with Daniel’s image of the Son of Man may assume this means that Jesus will march triumphantly into Jerusalem and overthrow the authorities and establish the Kingdom of God there by force, Jesus foretells of a far different set of circumstances awaiting Him in Jerusalem. He says, “The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him.”

Jesus speaks in a passive voice here – “the Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men.” This is no kamikaze suicide mission. Jesus is in the hands of others working to bring His life to an end. This delivering over takes place in two spheres of reality. On the one hand, there is what will take place in the human or earthly sphere. Jesus will be delivered, betrayed by one of His own disciples – Judas Iscariot – into the hands of the Sanhedrin, and then delivered by the Sanhedrin into the hands of Pilate, and delivered by Pilate into the hands of the soldiers, and delivered by the soldiers into the hands of death. The wording is reminiscent of what Jesus spoke concerning John the Baptist in parallel with Elijah in 9:13 – “They did to him whatever they wished.” With these words we see how Jesus was shuffled through the kangaroo courts of Jerusalem at the hands of men – Jews and Gentiles alike. The hands of men carried torches and weapons to come and find Him. The hands of men seized Him. The hands of men took up whips and tortured Him. The hands of men struck Him. The hands of men took up hammers and nailed Him to the cross.

But there is another sphere in which this deliverance occurred. Above and beyond the human or earthly sphere is the divine sphere of activity. In the Greek New Testament, we often come across statements such as this where there is a passive verb, such as here with “delivered,” but no indication of who is taking the action. In many if not most of these passages, the unseen actor at work is God Himself. These passages are referred to as “divine passives,” wherein God is working behind the scenes bringing His purposes to pass. And in this way, God is at work in the events that will come to pass with Jesus in Jerusalem. Over and above all that humanity will do to Jesus, He remains in the hands of His Father, who has ultimately delivered Him into the hands of men. Nothing will happen to Him in Jerusalem that is not known to God and in the power of God. His suffering and His death are no surprise to the Father. He has sent the Son on this mission knowing full well that this will be what happens. Every sacrifice of the Old Testament system was a foreshadowing of the ultimate sacrifice that Christ would come in the fullness of time to offer. God in His infinite wisdom had established from the foundation of the world that He would redeem mankind to Himself at the precisely perfect moment in time through the ultimate sacrifice of Himself in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, having been delivered into the hands of men by the predetermined will of God.

In his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2, Peter captures well what is going on in these two spheres of reality. He says in Acts 2:22-23, “Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know—this One, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.” The men whose hands nailed Jesus to the cross were willfully but unknowingly participating in the eternal plan of God to redeem humanity from sin.

And so here Jesus speaks of His tribulation that will come upon Him in Jerusalem. The Son of Man, spoken of so gloriously in the prophecies of His coming, must suffer much and die, that sin might receive its full penalty in the person of an innocent substitute who lays down His life for the guilty. If Christ did not die on the cross, there would be no salvation for us, no good news to hear, no Gospel to understand and receive, for we would still abide in our sins, and be eternally separated from God. But Christ willingly underwent this tribulation, being put to death by the hands of men, but ultimately carrying out the plans of God, because of God’s infinite love for mankind. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down His life for His friends.” Christ has come to do just this – to lay down His life in the plan of God and at the hands of godless men, in order that you and I can be reconciled to God. We who are from birth at enmity with God because of our sins are made to be His friends, yea even His very sons and daughters because of this. But His tribulation is not the final word. For we find another word about …

C. His Triumph

“And when He has been killed, He will rise three days later.” Several generations ago, a very popular yet controversial depiction of the life of Christ hit the stage and screen in Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. In the final scene, Jesus is depicted dying a slow painful death on the cross. And then the show is over. A couple of centuries prior to Jesus Christ Superstar, Thomas Jefferson issued what is commonly called now, “The Jefferson Bible,” a collection of stories and teachings gleaned from the New Testament Gospels. Thomas Jefferson did not personally believe in the deity of Jesus, in the Trinity, or in the possibility of miracles, and so absent from his “Bible” were any and all stories that involved the supernatural. Jefferson’s Bible ends with these words: “Now, in the place where he was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus. And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.” However, both the Jefferson Bible and Jesus Christ Superstar fail to give us the whole story, for the story does not end on the cross, and it does not end in a tomb. These events bring to close a chapter of the story of Jesus, but the story goes on triumphantly.

Jesus died a cruel and inhumane death on the cross. Jesus’ body was wrapped in cloths and placed in a rock hewn tomb which was subsequently sealed by a massive stone. But we have in our possession the eyewitness accounts of those who went to the tomb following the Sabbath and found it to be empty, and were thereafter confronted in person by the risen Jesus Christ. Jesus rose from the dead, just as He said He would, and thereby conquered the penalty of sin forever. Because Jesus walked alive out of the tomb, death is a defeated foe, and the door to eternal life stands open before us. Jesus could walk with resolute determination toward Jerusalem, knowing the cross was awaiting Him, because He knew full well that death would only be temporary, and that He would rise victoriously from the dead on the third day. He told them in advance that He would do so.

We have seen here, in abbreviated form, the claims of the gospel. There is more to the gospel than this, but this singular sentence of Jesus in Mark 9:31 contains the foundational elements of the good news of salvation in Christ: Who He Is, and What He Did. But if you will allow me briefly to speak about v32, we need to say something about …

II. The Comprehension of the Gospel (v32)

“They did not understand this statement, and they were afraid to ask.” If one sentence in this passage effectively summarizes the Gospel’s claims, then this one sentence effectively summarizes how the Gospel is comprehended, or better yet, how it isn’t comprehended by those who hear it. Two words capture the statement of v32: ignorance and fear. These two factors severely hinder people from comprehending the gospel personally and from sharing the gospel effectively.

“They did not understand.” We must confess, the words of Jesus are not that difficult to understand. He will be killed and He will rise again. That’s pretty straight forward. But it isn’t what they were expecting. In their ignorance, they cannot understand why this must be the way things will go. Can Jesus not just march into Jerusalem and set up the Kingdom of God on earth without this death and resurrection? In one sense, yes He can. But it would be a Kingdom of One, for no human being on earth would be able to enter that kingdom. Our sins would prevent us from entering. So in another sense, the answer is no, He cannot establish His Kingdom apart from His suffering and death, because the penalty of sin must be satisfied before we can become partakers in the Kingdom.

We fail to understand the Gospel when we fail to see the severity of our sins. We fail to comprehend that our sins violate the holy standard of God and cut us off from His presence. And in our society that says anything goes, and everything is tolerated except intolerance, sin is very naughty word. We try to euphemize it, psychologize it, medicate it, and treat it therapeutically and clinically. But there is no hope for us in these things. The only hope we have is to recognize sin as God sees it and receive the wondrous and gracious gift of Christ as the full satisfaction of our sin’s penalty. He did not come merely to make sad people happy, or poor people rich, or sick people well, or ignorant people smart. He came to make sinful people righteous. And unless we see ourselves as sinners in need of being made righteous before God, we will not comprehend the Gospel.

We fail to understand the Gospel when we fail to appreciate the simplicity of it. After all, for such a complex question – How can a sinful man be made right with a holy God? – we would expect a very complex answer. There must some rituals or some program or method we must undergo. Every false religion in the world prescribes duties and works that seek to make man good enough for God’s acceptance. But Christianity differs. Rather than saying, “You must do this for God,” Christianity says, “God has done this for you: Jesus died for your sins and rose again. If you believe that and receive Him, you will be saved.” That sounds overly simplistic, but it is the Gospel. Paul said in 2 Cor 11:3, “I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.” One of Satan’s chief strategies is to convince us that Christ is not enough to save us. But this is the Gospel, and this is what we must comprehend. He is sufficient! He has done all that is necessary to bring us back to God. It is up to us to believe this and to receive Him. But alas, this brings us to the second part of verse 32: fear.

“They were afraid to ask Him.” Having traveled with Jesus for the better part of three years now, and after all they have been through, it strikes us as odd that these disciples would fear asking Jesus. Perhaps they fear that He is growing exasperated with their failure to understand. Perhaps they fear being cast away from Him. Perhaps they fear the gospel’s implications for their own lives. After all, earlier He has told them that there will be suffering and sacrifice on their part as followers of Christ also. But here for this moment, fear prevents them from bearing their soul to Jesus, from confessing their true condition before Him, and ultimately from receiving the fullness of what He has come to do for them. In time, they will come around, but for now, they are bound up with ignorance and fear, and seem content to remain that way.

Some who are within the sound of my voice today perhaps can relate to this. You find yourself afraid to come to Jesus with your questions, your uncertainties, your fears and your struggles. We would remind you that He is the one who declared in John 6:37, “The one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” And so lay aside those fears and the confusion, or better yet, bring them to Jesus as you come to Him. He will not cast you out, but will open your heart and mind to understand, and impart to you the wondrous gift of salvation and eternal life.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news. It is the news that God loves us and has done all that is necessary for us to be reconciled to Him through the person and work of Jesus Christ. He died for our sins and is risen from the dead, a fact that we celebrate not only at this time of year as Easter approaches, but every day as we live in the joy of His salvation. We must understand these truths about Him and what He has done for us, and having understood them, we must personally receive this truth into our lives, as we turn from our sins and receive Christ as Lord and Savior. Having done this, we must live in obedience to Christ’s Great Commission to make this Gospel known to all men, inviting them into this eternal life as well.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Doing Ministry in the Valley > Mark 9:14-29

Audio available here.

In the Vatican Museum, there hangs the final painting of the great master painter, Raphael. It was incomplete at the time of his death in 1520, and later finished by his chief student. It is called “The Transfiguration.” One sixteenth century artist claimed that this was Raphael’s most beautiful and divine work. The upper half of the painting is focused on the extraordinary event we read of in Mark 9:1-8 – the glorious transformation of Christ. The scene is flooded with bright light and vivid color as Jesus is portrayed in His brilliant glory. But the lower half of the painting is a different scene. It is dark and full of shadows, and portrays men pointing fingers at each other with angry faces. The subject of the lower portion of that painting is the text we have just read. When Jesus took Peter and James and John up on the mountain with Him to witness His transfiguration, life did not stand still for the nine other disciples who were left at the base of the mountain. While the others were occupied with glorious things on the mountain top, these nine were left to handle the nitty-gritty of life in the valley.

Like them, we find ourselves today in the valley of real life and the hard matters of daily serving Jesus. Jesus has ascended to be with the Father in the fullness of His glory. We would love to be there instead of here. We would love to flee the needs and burdens of this life, but He has left us here. It is certainly true, that if Jesus wanted to, He could rapture us to glory the moment we are converted. But this He has NOT done, and so there must be some purpose for our remaining here. While we await our own ascendance to the heights of glory, we are left to sort out the matters of His church in a world full of human needs. So, the question is, “How?” How do we carry on life and ministry in the valley? We will be helped if we learn from the passage before us today, and our time in the valley will be of use for Christ and for His Kingdom purposes.

I. While We Are In the Valley, We Must Resist Distractions (v14-16)

A well-known saying that has been attributed to various sources goes, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” We become distracted by allowing things of lesser importance to crowd out the main thing. The motto of the Starbucks company says it well. For years, they have instilled into their personnel: “We are not in the coffee business serving people; we are in the people business serving coffee.” If coffee is of first importance to Starbucks, then the customer comes second. But they have dominated the market over the last decade by putting the customer first, and meeting the needs of the customer with their product. Now there are at least a dozen ways we could distort that idea and thereby do more harm than good to the work of the church in the valley. But what we can glean from it is that the main thing has to remain the main thing, and the main thing is people.

I have often joked that ministry would be a cakewalk if it weren’t for people. The irony is that if it weren’t for people, there’d be no need for ministry. The church is not in the ministry business serving people, we are in the people business, serving them with ministry. The disciples at the base of the mountain were presented with a person in need – a boy who was desperately afflicted by demonic possession. But when Jesus comes down from the mountain, He does not find their attentions focused on the boy and his situation, but rather they are on the verge of a street fight with the scribes. We aren’t told what the argument was about – Jesus asked in v16, “What are you discussing with them?” But we never get an answer. And we don’t need one. When there is a need such as the one they have been presented, the main thing is to act in the name and power of Christ to meet that need, and all other matters must become secondary.

Please don’t hear me saying that there is not a time and place for discussion, debate, even argument. Sometimes those things are necessary. We are admonished in the NT to defend the faith that has been passed down to us and to give a reason for the hope that is in us. We must hammer out sound doctrine and always seek to refine our convictions and practices to line them up with Scripture, and defend the integrity of the Christian faith against the attacks that come against it from inside and out. Every generation finds itself in the midst of an attack on doctrines that we hold precious. Today we are facing theological battles that must be fought – Open Theism, the New Perspective, the Federal Vision, just to name a few. You may have never heard of any of these things, and you probably don’t care to hear an explanation of them. Thank God there are scholars at work hammering out biblical arguments against these sneaky heresies. We must stand against these things and others. But, what will it matter if we are right about these thigns and know all the mysteries of the faith, yet do not live that faith out in the Kingdom work of ministering to those in need? Sound biblical doctrine is only sound when it changes the way you live and makes you love God and others more. If it doesn’t do that – its just cold, dead, orthodoxy. I had a professor who overheard some of the students debating about the best kind of leather you can get a Bible bound in. The professor interjected, “The best kind of leatheryou’re your Bible is shoe leather.”

When Jesus comes down and sees this argument taking place, you will notice that He did not take sides or lay blame. He says, in essence, “Why are you having this argument when there is work to be done?” The Bible teaches us that Jesus is coming again. We don’t know when. We must live as if He is returning today. And when He returns, will He find us splitting doctrinal hairs, dotting I’s and crossing T’s, while people are suffering around us – people who need the gospel and who need to be met with the compassion and power of God. The homeless person, the drug addict, the prostitute, the middle-class family who is having trouble paying their bills, the abused spouse, the battered child, the person who is contemplating whether or not to live or die – these people really don’t care if you are a Calvinist or an Arminian, or when you think the rapture is going to happen. I have a hard time believing they are concerned about what kind of music we sing or which version of the Bible we use. They have a need that only Christ can meet, and you may be the closest thing to Jesus they will ever meet. These people and their needs are NOT distractions – they are the main thing, and if we aren’t careful, we will let other things become a distraction that keeps the main thing from being the main thing.

II. While We Are In the Valley, We Must Represent Jesus (v17-19)

The desperate father’s words in this passage are an indictment against the disciples. “I brought YOU my son,” he says. He came, we don’t know how far, and we don’t know at what personal expense, but we know that the journey could not have been easy with a child afflicted so severely. But he came to see Jesus, the one whom he had heard may be able to help his son – another Gospel tells us, his ONLY son. But when he arrived, he did not find Jesus; he found the disciples. And so, he says, “I told Your disciples” to cast the demon out, “and they could not.”

Now, we must confess up front it was a tall order. The boy’s symptoms are similar to epilepsy: seizures, convulsions, foaming at the mouth, grinding his teeth, becoming rigid all over. In fact he may have had epilepsy, but it was no mere medical condition. It was brought on by a demonic spirit who also rendered the boy deaf and mute. But it should be remembered that in Mark 6:13, when Jesus sent out the disciples, they were able to cast out many demons and heal many sick people. This was not new ground for them to chart. They had done it before. But they could not do it this time.

Imagine for a moment the disappointment this father must have felt. He had brought his son to Jesus, but the followers of Jesus were unable to deliver. I suggest to you that many in our day find themselves drawn to Jesus, only to be disappointed by the inadequacy and powerlessness they find in us. They come into our churches hoping to find the power of God in the person of Christ, and instead they find you and me. And we are unable to meet their expectations. But in all this is an even greater lesson for the church – we are not here representing ourselves. We are here to represent Jesus! And we must be quick to tell them that where we are incapable, He is more than able.

Jesus says to the father, “Bring him to Me.” And He says to us, “Bring them to Me.” Do not think that our human effort and opinion will be sufficient to transform the lives of those who come seeking. We must do all we can to get them into the hands of the One who can help them. It will matter very little in the end that these individuals were impressed with us, or with our songs, or with the beauty of our sanctuary, if they do not encounter God in our midst. And they can if we will put aside pride and tradition, programs and speculations, prejudices and hypocrisy, and through our worship and ministry magnify Christ in all His power and glory. He is the One who can transform their lives, and it is Him whom we represent in all we do.

All of this really segues and overlaps a bit with the final point.

III. While We Are In the Valley, We Must Recognize Certain Limitations (v20-29)

It would really be awesome if, every time we were presented with a difficult challenge of church ministry, Jesus would come down in the flesh and handle it for us. That’s what He did here in the text. But He will not come down again in the flesh until He returns in glory, as He promised in Mark 8:38. But He has promised to work through us and empower us to serve Him while we remain here in the valley. But it is absolutely essential that we recognize that we are bound by certain limitations. We see two of those limitations here in the text.

A. We are limited by the measure of our faith (v21-27)

In a sense this is the theme of the entire passage. In verse 19, Jesus says, “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you?” The commentators go back and forth with the question of whom Jesus was addressing with this statement: Was he addressing the crowd, the scribes, the disciples, or the father? The answer is “Yes.” Each party is seen demonstrating a lack of faith to some greater or lesser degree in the passage. But if we would overcome this lack of faith and see the power of God manifested, we must have faith that exceeds three obstacles.

1. Faith That Overcomes Desperation (v21-22)

We have already mentioned the severity of this boy’s condition. Perhaps this is why the disciples were unable to help him. Perhaps they did not have enough faith that God could help such a desperate situation. On their own, they have not faced anything of this magnitude yet. The temptation is to say that this problem is so great that even God cannot fix it. That is a laughable proposition. Is there anything too hard for the Lord? When you stop to consider that He called this entire universe into being by the Word of His power, that He conquered even death itself, how small our problems begin to appear! And we must see those things for what they are – desperate circumstances, YES, but desperate for us, not for God. He has yet to encounter the problem too large for Himself to tackle. We must believe this as we bring Him the concerns of our hearts and lives.

2. Faith That Overcomes Doubt (v22-24)

It may seem offensive to suggest that the father did not have this overcoming kind of faith after all he went through to get his son to Jesus. That he had faith is not in question. The question is whether his doubts were greater than his faith. Three words in his statement in verse 22 give rise to the question. Those words are “If you can.” Contrast this with the words of the leper in Mark 1:40, who said to Jesus, “If You are willing, you can make me clean.” The difference is subtle but significant. Overcoming faith says, “If You will, You can.” Doubtful faith says, “If You can, You might.” Jesus’ response in v23 is translated various ways which lead to different understandings of it. But essentially Jesus repeats the father’s own words back to him: “If you can?” He is pointing out the weight of this man’s doubt which is hindering his faith. He is saying, “Now, about this ‘If you can,’ thing,” and then He gives the man a very precious promise. “All things are possible to him who believes.” In other words, a man who has an overcoming kind of faith will not put limits on what God in Christ can do.” There is no question about whether or not Jesus can. The question is do we believe He can? That will determine the measure of our faith. Does our faith overcome our doubt?

3. Faith that Overcomes Disappointment (v25-27)

Sometimes things don’t go exactly like we think they should. Our expectations are unmet, and we are left with disappointment. Sometimes things get worse instead of better. Such was the case here. When Jesus commanded the demon to leave the boy, he “became so much like a corpse that most of” the crowd “said, ‘He is dead.’” This was not the outcome anyone was expecting. But, overcoming faith looks disappointment in the face and says “God isn’t finished working yet.” The father might have been tempted to pick up the lifeless carcass of his only precious child and return home to begin planning a funeral. But he didn’t. And it is a good thing he didn’t. Because the next thing we read is that Jesus reached down and took the boy by the hand and raised him. Now we don’t know if the boy was actually dead, or just appeared to be dead, but the Greek word used here for raised is the same word used throughout the New Testament for “resurrection.” Whether Christ brought a dead child back to life, or if He merely brought him out of a catatonic state, the point is the same. If we cave in to disappointment too quickly, we may miss the greatest work that God has yet to do.

The disciples had been questioning what Jesus had meant when He spoke of raising from the dead. Here He shows them a picture. When that terrible Friday comes later and Jesus lays down His life on the cross and His lifeless cadaver is placed in the sealed tomb, will the disciples have enough faith to believe that this is not the end? Will they look confidently toward Sunday and believe that He will rise? Each of us are similarly faced with disappointment, but we must have that overcoming kind of faith that sees the empty tomb as a reminder that God is not finished yet.

If we have not this kind of overcoming faith, then we will be severely limited in what we are able to see God do in us, through us, and for us. We all have some measure of faith, but like the father in our text today, we must confess our need to be helped out of our unbelief, that we might embrace this kind of unlimited, overcoming faith. But there is another limitation that must be addressed in closing.

B. We are limited by the measure of our prayer (v28-29)

Why could the disciples not handle the situation on their own? Jesus said, “This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer.” I know that some of the translations have the word fasting here, and in comparing to the other gospels, Jesus may have actually said that here. But the best Greek manuscripts we have of Mark do not contain reference to fasting. The point is that we must not attempt to do ministry in the valley in our own strength. We must recognize that only God can meet the needs presented to us, and we carry those needs to Him in prayer. James says it very succinctly – “You have not because you ask not.” A prayerless church will ever be a powerless church, for its lack of prayer betrays either a lack of faith or overconfidence in human ability, or both – and God can use neither. God will work through a people who believe in Him with unlimited and confident faith, who are unashamed to lay every matter before Him in earnest prayer.

During the nineteenth century, perhaps there was no greater preacher than Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and no greater church than London’s Metropolitan Tabernacle where he pastored. So well-known was this church and this pastor that people would come from far and wide just to observe and to learn the secret of this great church’s ministry. When people would walk through the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Spurgeon would take them to the basement prayer room where people were always on their knees interceding for the church. Then Spurgeon would declare, "Here is the powerhouse of this church." A praying church will be a powerful church, for it will be a church that perpetually depends and avails itself to the power of God through its prayer. If we are going to minister in the valley as we wait for the Lord’s return, we must be a people of great prayer!

O it would be glorious to dwell in tabernacles on mountain peaks surrounded by the glory of Christ and the company of spiritual giants. But God is pleased to leave us in the valley for a season, representing Him to the multitudes who are looking to Him to lift their burdens. We must resist being drawn into distractions from the main thing of pointing people to the Christ who can transform their lives. We must recognize that this can only happen where there is overcoming faith and abundant prayer. A church in the valley must be thus characterized – keeping the main thing the main thing, avoiding trivial distractions, representing Jesus to a world in need of Him, fostering faith in itself and the community around it, and wearing out its knees in prayer. We are not left to do this alone. Though Christ is risen and ascended, the Spirit has come to indwell God’s people. His power is available to work in us, for us, and through us, if these things be true of us as Christ’s Church. May God make it so.