Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Preach Jesus!

Justin Taylor
has introduced us to a neat little web-gadget called "Wordle." Basically, you can paste any text into Wordle's engine, and get an artistic "word cloud" where the most frequently occurring words of the text occur in larger font, and the less frequent words appear smaller. So, I had this idea. A preacher can use this to determine if he is getting his point across in a sermon. Paste a sermon manuscript into the Wordle engine, and the main points of the sermon should be larger than the rest of the text. If not, you didn't get your point across. Then I had the idea, why not gauge the whole body of a preacher's work this way? So I took the last several (I didn't count them) sermons I have preached and pasted them all into Wordle and got the following image:

I am glad to know that I am saying Jesus and God and Christ in my preaching more than any other words. Give Wordle a try for yourself here.

Dialogues About Discipleship: Mark 10:17-31

Audio available here

In the parable of the sower, Jesus spoke of a seed that that was sown among thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it and it yielded no crop. When He later explained the meaning of that parable to the disciples, He said that the seed sown among thorns was a symbol of “the ones who have heard the word, but the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.” In our passage today, we just such a one as this. Having heard at some point about Jesus Christ and the offer of eternal life, he came running to Jesus, but no sooner had he come that he went away because he was deceived by his riches.

As we examine the passage we will see three dialogues about discipleship. First, a dialogue between Jesus and an unnamed man about the requirements for eternal life. Second, a dialogue between Jesus and the disciples about the deceitfulness of riches. Third, a dialogue between Jesus and Peter about the blessings of discipleship.

I. The Requirements for Eternal Life (17-22)

As Jesus is beginning to depart on a journey to Jerusalem, “a man” comes to him with a question. Mark simply calls him “a man.” The context admits that he is a rich man. Matthew’s gospel tells us that he is young. Luke’s gospel tells us that he was a ruler, meaning that he was probably one of the leaders at a local synagogue. Therefore, this “man” has become known to us as “The Rich Young Ruler.” This title is a very impressive résumé in the eyes of the world. He has three things highly valued in his favor: He has wealth, he has youth, and he has power. He has come to Jesus at the right time of life. And he comes to Jesus in the right manner: he ran to Him and knelt before Him. This indicates that the man understood the urgency of seeking Jesus and the reverence which was due to Him.

Even the title that he gives to Jesus says that he understood something of the nature of Jesus. He called Him “Good Teacher.” As Jesus Himself says, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” Rabbis in that day were called by any number of titles, but none would allow himself to be called “Good Teacher,” for fear of blaspheming the greatness of God.[1] But you will notice in the text that Jesus does not refuse the title. His statement in v18 seems to press home the issue of His identity. We might paraphrase what Jesus is saying about being called “Good Teacher” like this: “That’s interesting that you call me good, because we both know that only God is good. Do you see some connection between God and myself? Your words indicate that you do. Do you really know Me or God in such a way to make that statement?”[2]

Something about Jesus has led this man to assume that He knows the answer to a question that is plaguing his soul. He asks Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” This may be the most important question anyone could ever ask. Before the days of this life are over, we must know how to enter the life of the Kingdom of God to come. But you will notice that the emphasis of the question falls on the word, “DO.” What must I DO?

Like all Scripture, this passage is best understood when it remains tightly joined to its context. In the verses immediately preceding, Jesus has announced that whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all. As we studied that passage, we concluded that Jesus was not commending certain virtues of childhood like innocence, humility, or naivety. Rather, He was speaking of what children lack. They are needy, helpless and dependent upon the kindness of others for their well-being. This is how each of us must come to Jesus. We must see ourselves in need, without help and without hope, completely dependent upon His grace to rescue us and provide us with eternal life in His Kingdom. But here we find a contrasting picture to that one, as this man comes before Jesus taking about doing rather than receiving. He has not yet come to childlike receptivity, but seems to think that there is some work he can do, some ritual he can undergo, some activity he can engage in which will earn him eternal life.

Jesus’ response is interesting. He says, “You know the commandments.” In other words, if you are so intent on doing, do those things that the Law requires. And Jesus lists six of them, five of which are from the second table of the Ten Commandments: Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, honor your father and mother. To these He adds “Do not defraud.” These are all observable, external, moral behaviors. They can be done, and if they are done, they will be seen. And to this, the man says, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.” Now, we tend to doubt the sincerity of this statement, for no one can say with integrity that they have kept the whole law. Every descendant of Adam has failed the righteousness of God at some point, in word or thought or deed. But, you will recall that Paul even said that as a faithful Jew, when he was considered by the standards of righteousness that is found in the Law, he was blameless (Php 3:6). Jesus did not present the man with internal, heart-level commands that focus on intentions or motives. These commands are not impossible to keep, and from Jesus’ reaction, we don’t have any reason to think that Jesus doubted that this man had lived a morally upright life, and He would certainly have known the truth behind the man’s words.

After the man acknowledges that he has kept all the commandments listed, we see Jesus’ response. “Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him.” This is the only time in Mark’s Gospel that we read of Jesus loving someone, though we know He loves everyone. The look and the love express Jesus heart for this man. He is so close to the Kingdom. He wants to know what to do to enter it, and he can say with honesty that he has done all that he knows to do. But he remains unfulfilled spiritually. The doing of all these things has given him no assurance of eternal life. In his mind there must be something more to be done. And Jesus says, “One thing you lack.”

In Romans 3:20, Paul says, “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” The Law cannot provide eternal life to anyone. It was never intended to. It was only intended to show people where they have gone astray from the Lord. If it was possible for a person to keep the entire Law, they would still be lacking in righteousness before God. So Jesus says, “One thing you lack.” Don’t you want to know what that one thing is? I am sure this man was eager to find out what the one thing is.

Jesus said, “Go and sell all you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heave; and come, follow Me.” Wait a minute. That’s not one thing. That’s three things. Go and sell; give to the poor; come, follow Me. I thought He said one thing! He did. And the one thing is “Come, follow Me.” Only in following Jesus by faith can we receive the righteousness that God requires. It is not in our doing, but in our childlike receiving that we have eternal life, and it is only as we follow Jesus that we can receive Him and the Kingdom life He offers. So why does Jesus tell the man to go and sell all he has and give to the poor? Because Jesus knows that this man will always be tempted to trust in his own merits unless they be stripped away from him. The call of Jesus to this man is no different than the call He has given to His disciples. To those who were fishermen, He called them to leave their boats and their nets. To Matthew, the tax-collector, He called to leave his collection booth and follow. And to this man, He calls to leave his riches and follow. Jesus is not here declaring that the poverty is a requirement for eternal life. He is saying that anything which impedes the call to follow Him is a grave danger to us. The wealth and power that this man has amassed will always rival his allegiance to Jesus unless they are abandoned in faith in order to heed the call of following Jesus. As long as this man stands on his own merits of wealth and power, he is falsely self-assured of his standing before God; but Jesus calls him to leave his comfort zone and step out in faith where his only claim before God is that He has turned away from all that this world holds and followed Jesus in the path of discipleship.

And so it is for each of us. Whatever in our lives we may consider to be to our advantage, we must be willing to forsake in exchange for Jesus Himself, for it is only as we follow Him that we will enter eternal life. And presented with the call to follow Him, we must make a choice to cling to our own human efforts or to abandon our own merits and cling to Him alone. And when this man was presented with the call, what did he do? He was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property. His riches were his reason for rejecting the call to follow Jesus. And in one of the most tragic scenes in all of Scripture, this man closed the door to eternal life upon himself, choosing to go on pursuing the desires of this life instead of the offer of eternal life. His choice revealed the fact that though he had kept many of the law’s demands, he had fallen short of the first commandment to have no other gods before the one true God. His wealth was an idol that he placed above the Lord in his affections.

Wealth is not always wrong, and does not automatically disqualify one from eternal life. But for this man, wealth presents an eternal danger for his wealth prevented him from doing the one thing which was necessary for eternal life: following Jesus. If there is anything in our lives which would stand in our way of full obedience to the call of following Christ, that thing has become an idol. We must hold on loosely to the things of this world, and be willing to let them slip from our grasp when the call of Christ commands. Whatever we sacrifice for Christ’s sake will be recognized by the Lord and rewarded in heaven, as Jesus promises this man. If he will give up his possessions and bless the poor with his wealth, he will have treasure in heaven. But even if he gives it all away, he still will only gain eternal life if he chooses to follow Jesus. In this dialogue, we see that one thing is a necessary requirement for eternal life: we must follow Jesus, for only in Him will we receive the righteousness that God requires. The sad ending of this encounter leads us to the next dialogue, which concerns …

II. The Deceitfulness of Riches (v23-27)

The seed of the word had been planted into the soil of the Rich Young Ruler’s life, but it was choked out by the thorny deceitfulness of riches. And Jesus says now to His disciples, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God.” This amazed the disciples, for they could not understand how one with so much to boast of in the things of this world could be turned away from eternal life. He was the epitome of earthly success. But Jesus says to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God.” Notice that He calls His disciples, “Children.” Could it be that Jesus wants to remind them that they have come empty handed to Him, willing to receive what He alone can give, while this man came offering to do something, and thinking that some merit within himself could warrant eternal life?

As long as a person is deceived by their riches, their power, or their own self-made claims into thinking that eternal life is something they can earn for themselves, it remains very hard for them to enter the Kingdom. So hard that Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” This statement was a take on an often used Jewish proverb ascribed to difficult or impossible situations. Any number of large animals were inserted in, but Jesus chose a camel. Some have suggested that Jesus was not speaking of a literal eye of a needle, but was instead referring to a gate in Jerusalem known as “The Eye of the Needle,” through which a camel could only pass by throwing off its burdens and stooping to a crawl. That’s an attractive suggestion, but that particular gate was not built in Jerusalem until about 900 years later, so we have to abandon that theory. It is hyperbole, an exaggeration used for the effect of making His hearers understand just how impossible it is for anyone who trusts in the things of this world to earn them eternal life.

The man had asked an important question: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answer suggests that there is nothing that can be done to earn it. And so the disciples now ask a much more important question. In light of the futility of trying to gain eternal life by works, and in light of the unworthiness of any of us to gain it, “Then who can be saved?” This is the first use of the word saved in this eternal context in Mark’s Gospel. We talk often about being “saved,” but I wonder if we have grasped “saved” from what? If we think that being saved means going to heaven instead of going somewhere slightly less pleasant, or going to heaven instead of rotting in a grave in some churchyard, or having a happy life instead of a sad one, then we haven’t even fathomed it. The disciples understand that to not inherit eternal life is to inherit eternal condemnation in hell, and if that is what we are all destined for, what hope do we have? When Mark says that they were amazed in v24, the word he uses could be translated as scared or even terrified. They recognize that if God could bar the doors of heaven to such a one as this – a rich man, a young man, a powerful man, a moral man, what hope do any of us have? After all, Jesus has not limited the difficulty of entering the Kingdom to rich men alone. He has said in v24 that it is hard for anyone to enter. This is a terrifying realization.

Jesus response contains some bad news and some good news. First the bad news: “With people it is impossible.” If you are thinking that there is something you do, some price you can pay, some activity on your part that will save you, you are dangerously deceived. It is impossible. Everything of our own doing that we trust to save us is yet another camel trembling before the impassable eye of the needle. But there is good news: “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” It is He who through Christ is able to save the vilest sinner. His grace is limitless as it reaches out to save all who would recognize their neediness, their helplessness apart from Him, and their dependence upon Him. He is able to save all who receive Him in this kind of faith. But those who are deceived by their riches, those who are determined to gain life by their own efforts, those who are convinced they are going to strut into heaven boasting of their own merits, will find that their pride, their possessions, and their pomp has played a cruel joke on them and led them to a narrow gate that they are incapable of entering. They are riding camels that will never pass through the needle’s eye. With the promise of God’s salvation now declared, the narrative turns to another dialogue, this time between Christ and Peter. And this time the focus is …

III. The Blessings of Discipleship (28-31)

This entire episode has caused the disciples to question their own security with the Lord. There are some in our day who consider doubt to be a terrible thing. To them, for one to doubt the authenticity of his or her faith is a dangerous thing. However I suggest to you that there is at least one thing more dangerous: to be falsely assured of salvation when in fact you have not received it is a much more dangerous state to find oneself in. And if doubting would produce a reexamination, then that reexamination may lead to genuine assurance, or else to a recognition of the need to yet be saved. Then, thanks be to God for the doubt that came.

Peter is stricken by the entire episode that has transpired. The words of Jesus and the departure of the young man have caused him to wonder if all is well between him and the Lord Jesus. “Behold,” he says, “we have left everything and followed You.” There is a question underlying this: “Do we lack something more? Have our sacrifices been noticed by God, and will they be laid up as treasures in heaven for us?” And Jesus responds: “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms for My sake and for the gospel’s sake but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age … and in the age to come, eternal life.” There are several important truths to draw from these words.

First notice that not everyone who has made sacrifices in life are included in this promise of blessing. These blessings are reserved for those who have sacrificed the comforts of this world “for My sake,” Jesus says, “and for the gospel’s sake.” People make sacrifices in life for any number of reasons, some more noble than others. But these are those who have put away every earthly barrier that would hinder them from fulfilling the call to follow Jesus.

Second, notice that these blessings will be enjoyed in this life. It is one thing for us to believe in a “Pie in the Sky, By and By, When You Die,” kind of religion, but here Jesus says that these blessings will come to His disciples in this life! Now, you may ask, “How will someone who leaves houses and farms and family for the sake of Jesus and the gospel receive a hundred-fold return on those things in this life?” The answer is found as disciples live in covenant community in the church. Has the call of Christ caused you to leave family members behind? You have a new family in Christ, with countless brothers and sisters, even mothers and children, in the family of God. And these relationships are not “pretend.” They are real. The covenant bond of the family of God is just as real as the biological bond between family members. You recall when Jesus’ family members sought to divert Him from His ministry, He said in Mark 3:35, “Whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother.” Twice in his letters to Timothy, Paul refers to Timothy as “my son.” Peter refers to Mark in 1 Peter 5:13 as “my son.” This is a hard lesson to get across in the South, where one of our favorite sayings is “blood is thicker than water.” Yes it is, but the blood of Christ that binds His disciples together in the family of God is thicker than the blood of man. But what about this promise of receiving a hundred fold on houses and farms? You will recall that the early church we find in Acts 2 is described as having all things in common, and selling their property and possessions to share with any who may have a need. My pastor liked to point to that passage and refer to a “no-needs” church, because its members helped one another meet whatever need they had. In parts of the world where faith in Christ forces believers to live as fugitives, they must depend on the kindness of their brothers and sisters in the faith.

Third, notice that there are some interesting omissions in the list of family blessings. First, you will notice that Jesus does not mention leaving a husband or wife for His sake. As we have discussed at length previously in the teaching on divorce, God’s plan for marriage is that it be an indissoluble bond, therefore, no one has any biblical basis to say that they are divorcing a spouse for the sake of Christ or the gospel, and there is no promise given of a “hundred-fold” return of husbands and wives. Rather, we have Paul’s clear teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 that a believer who has an unbelieving spouse must remain with that spouse as long as the unbeliever will have them. And you will also notice that, although Jesus mentions leaving a father for His sake or the gospel, fathers are not mentioned in the list of blessings that will be received a hundred-fold. He mentions borthers, sisters, mothers, and children, but not fathers. That is because in the Christian life, we do not have a hundred fathers, but only One. God becomes a Father to His children, and His Fatherhood over us is more blessed than a hundred earthly fathers.

Fourth, notice that along with all these blessings that will accompany the disciples in this life there is a promise of persecutions. Jesus does not promise that the life of discipleship is endless bliss. He is very clear that the call to follow Him is costly. There will be persecutions. This is promised repeatedly in Scripture. Paul promises in 2 Tim 3:12, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” We must know going into it that the cost of discipleship is high, and we must be willing to endure the scorn of humanity as we follow Jesus. those who read the Gospel of Mark when it was first written would take great comfort in knowing that the persecutions that they faced were not a sign that God had abandoned them, but were in fact, part-in-parcel of the Christian life. Our brothers and sisters who live in what we call the 10-40 window today are also comforted by this realization. In America, we have been blessed with freedoms that have prevented us from facing harsh persecutions, though many of God’s people have still had to endure mocking and scorn, the loss of jobs and relationships, because of their faith in Christ. But I must say as I look at the winds of change blowing through our nation today that the security and freedoms we have taken for granted for a long time in this country are beginning to disappear, and perhaps within some of our lifetimes, we will also have to make costly decisions for the sake of Christ and the gospel. We must not wait until that day comes to determine if we will be willing to endure persecution for His sake. We must commit here and now that following Christ is more important to us than any consequence which may come our way because of our faith.

Fifth, in addition to the promise of blessings and persecutions in this life, Jesus promises to those who follow His call to discipleship that in the age to come, they will receive eternal life. This is not a universal promise for all people. It is offered to the one who makes the costly decision to follow Jesus, who makes the necessary sacrifices to follow Him, and who endures the persecutions that accompany the life of faith. But we remember that this life is brief in light of eternity, and if we will persevere and endure, we have eternity to enjoy the presence of God in His Kingdom. So Paul could say in 2 Cor 4, “Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”

Finally, we come to the last verse in this section of text, wherein Jesus says, “But many who are first will be last, and the last, first.” In its context we see a very simple meaning for these words: There are many, like the Rich Young Ruler, who are first in the things of this world. He was a picture of earthly success, but in the end when he stands before God, he will no longer be first. The successes of this life will have evaporated, and he who was first will find that he has become last. And then there are those who are despised in this world, those who have abandoned all for the sake of Christ and endured the scorn of their persecutors. In that moment on the brink of eternity, they will find that it has not been in vain, for though they were last in the estimation of this world, they will find that they are first in the estimation of God, and will enter into life eternal in the Kindgom of God as the others are sadly turned away.

Perhaps this message find you today living like the Rich Young Ruler: successful, powerful, moral, but ultimately spiritually unfulfilled and wondering what its going to take to satisfy the hunger in your soul for the assurance of eternal life. Would you come running to Jesus and bow yourself before Him, see Him look lovingly toward you, and hear His call to follow? And when you hear that call, how will you respond? Will you let the pleasures and prosperity of this world slip from your hands and say, “Yes Lord, I will follow?” Or will you walk away sad, clinging to the treasures of this world and forsaking those of the world to come? What a pitiable sight to see someone walk away from the offer of eternal life! The Lord Jesus looks upon us all with love: He looks upon us with love from Calvary’s cross, where He endured suffering and shame and where He died for my sins and for yours. He looks upon us with love from the mouth of His empty tomb where He conquered death on our behalf so that we could enjoy the eternal life which He offers to us freely as a gift, if only we will receive Him. And lovingly He says to us, “One thing you lack … come, follow me.” We echo that call today and beckon you, if you have never committed yourself to following Him before, that you would do so today.

And then perhaps you find yourself having endured much sacrifice for the sake of Christ and wondering if it has all been in vain. You look perhaps with envy upon those who taste success in this world and wonder where the justice of God is when the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. Oh, hear the words of Jesus today as He says to you, “You haven’t given up anything that I can’t more than make up for!” Cherish the blessings of life in His covenant family, and the promise of eternal life awaiting you, knowing that though you may be last in the things of this world, you will be among the first in the life to come.

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

[2] Adapted from Sinclair B. Ferguson, Let’s Study Mark (Carlisle, Penn.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), 165.

Who's the Comedian?

I was talking to a layperson yesterday (a member of another church) about the task of biblical preaching. We talked about how some people think there must be a "trick" or a "secret" to biblical preaching, when in reality, it is simply reading the word, explaining the word, and applying the word. I say "simply," but in fact it is hard work. If there's a trick or secret to it, it is that you have to exert much intellectual and spiritual sweat in the work of preparing biblical sermons. But contrast this with those who want to give "life tips" and nice little talks that may allude at some point to the Bible without expounding the Scriptures clearly and straight-forwardly. To this my friend said, "And some preachers think they have to be comedians too!" We've all seen this. I know some preachers who are known for their jokes. And nothing pains me more than hearing the same jokes repeated ad nauseum from every pulpit in the world. Usually I just sit there and mutter the punch line to whoever is sitting beside me before the set-up is finished.

Preachers as comedians? We who handle the most precious and serious truth in the universe, trying to cash it in for a mess of pottage so that people will think we are cute and funny! How ironic. George Carlin has died this week, and the blogosphere is full of reflection about his career. George Carlin was vulgar, blasphemous, and obscene. He was also brilliant and the intelligent insight he had on "regular life" was what made him so funny. Reading the blogs about him in recent days, I am particularly struck by the comments of the Internet Monk. I think this comment struck me so sharply because of the conversation I had yesterday with my friend about preachers trying to be comedians.

Here is the comment from the iMonk:

"What strikes me as continually ironic is that Carlin and other comedians have become the truth-tellers of our time, while Christians, especially in their official capacities as preachers, etc., have become the embodiment of truth avoidance and truth obscuration. Or, if you’d like to get on the more cynical bus with me and the Ecclesiastes Band, we’re more known for being liars about the human journey than we are for telling the truth. In that sense, I can say a hardy Thank God for George Carlin, who wasn’t afraid to tell it like it was, even if it totally overturned the tables so nicely arranged by the orderers of society and the custodian of decent thought."

Read the whole thing here.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Rev. Tom Petty?

Over at our other blog, "The Sacred in the Secular," I penned some thoughts that overflow from an evening of exhaustion, frustration, and starvation about how I identified more closely with Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" than ever before.

Check it out here.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Praising God for Courage

The Southern Baptist Convention is a unique Christian body. Every year, thousands of messengers come to the annual meeting to hear reports from our Baptist organizations, to decide on motions and resolutions, and to elect officers. A large majority of those in attendance sit quietly in their seats and listen, while a few make their way to the microphones to voice their concerns. I have attended eleven consecutive Conventions, beginning in 1998 in Salt Lake City (the best convention I have attended) and continuing through this year's meeting in Indianapolis. For most of those years, only one candidate has been put forth to be the President. It is no secret that a group of leaders from the Conservative Resurgence would decide amongst themselves a few months ahead of time who that candidate should be. All of those put forth during the time of my convention attendance have been godly and respectable leaders who have all done a fine job of leading the convention and being our spokesman. However, a few years ago one man had the courage to challenge the status quo. One man made his way to a microphone to put forth the name of a challenger.

In 2004, when we met in Indianapolis, I was seated with my then-Associate Pastor, Brad Gaines near the center of the assembly, when the presidential nominations were being made. Bobby Welch was nominated by Johnny Hunt, and our assumption was that he would be elected without opposition as had happened in years past. But suddenly, the President recognized a speaker at a microphone. There stood my friend from Seminary, Dennis Conner, who was then pastor of Cashie Baptist Church in Windsor, NC (and now pastor of Crosspointe Church near Phoenix, AZ). I whispered to Brad, "What is he doing?" What he was doing was creating a revolution in Baptist Convention procedure. From the microphone on the floor, Dennis nominated Al Jarrell, another fellow Southeastern Student. Al was pastor of Riverside Baptist in Merry Hill, NC, which was averaging around 70 in Sunday School at the time. In his nomination speech, Dennis admitted that he didn't think Al had a chance and had to beg him to let his name be put forth. I understand from talking to Dennis later that the whole thing went down literally moments before Dennis approached the microphone. But as Dennis stated the nomination, applause began to rise from the messengers, and to the surprise of us all, Al Jarrell received more than twenty percent of the vote. One thousand twenty messengers (including Brad, Dennis, Billy Belk and me) cast their votes for Jarrell.

Two years later when the convention met in Greensboro, Dr. Frank Page was elected as President of the SBC over establishment favorites Ronnie Floyd and Jerry Sutton. Frank has served us well for two years, and I think most Southern Baptists would agree that he has been a breath of fresh air in Convention life. But he would have never been nominated, much less elected, if Dennis Conner had not had the courage to step to the microphone and nominate Al Jarrell in 2004.

This year, 2008, we returned to Indianapolis. The whole time I was in the assembly, I couldn't help thinking about Dennis and his courage. This year, we did not have one candidate. We did not have three candidates. We had six candidates. While I think some of those nominated would have been unfit to lead the SBC, at least we had a choice. I cast my vote for Dr. Avery Willis, a godly man whom I have respected for many years. Dr. Willis did not win, and confessed to me in the corridors on Wednesday evening that he was relieved that he didn't. Johnny Hunt did win, as most people could have predicted. But it was wonderful to hear several names put forth as candidates. In 2003, I would have said it would never happen. But it did happen, and as I reflect on this year's convention, I am grateful to God for the courage of Dennis Conner. I believe that in generations to come, what he did in 2004 will be talked about in circles of Baptist historians. His name may not be remembered by many, but his act of courage will never be forgotten.

Dennis & Cindy Conner
of Crosspointe Church in Buckeye, AZ

Jesus Loves the Little Children: Mark 10:13-16

(There will be no uploaded audio for this message)

I remember as a child hearing a little rhyme that went something like this, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby carriage.” In our day we are sad to say that those things do not always occur in that order, but I do think it is fitting that a moving account of our Lord’s interaction with children follows immediately on the heels of His authoritative declaration about God’s design for marriage. While Mark does not give us any indication of the time that passed between the end of the marriage statement and this account, the parallel passage in Matthew begins with the word “Then,” indicating that this episode involving the children took place immediately after the teaching on marriage.

We teach our little ones to sing the song, “Jesus loves the little children.” And no passage I know of demonstrates His love for them as vividly as this one does. The endearing picture we see of our Lord here made this passage an instant favorite of the early church, and has been the inspiration of countless works of art through the years. There are two main thoughts I want to convey to us today from these words: (1) The Differing Perspectives about Children and (2) The Demonstrative Pattern of Children. As we consider these things, we will want to ask ourselves what our attitudes convey to children about the Lord Jesus Christ, how our actions either hinder or enable little ones in coming to Jesus, and finally, how children demonstrate to us what it means to truly come to Jesus by faith.

I. The Differing Perspectives About Children

We see here in the text at least three different perspectives toward children: that of their parents, that of the disciples, and that of the Lord Jesus.

A. The Desire of Godly Parents (v13a)

And they were bringing children to Him so that He might touch them.

We see in these words a vivid picture of a group of people crowded around the place where Jesus was. We aren’t told how many there were, and we aren’t told who they are. While we would naturally picture in our mind’s eye a group of mothers with babes in arms, the impersonal they and the masculine them at the end of the verse indicates that fathers were present in the midst too, and perhaps even older brothers and sisters. This group of parents and children were bringing children to Jesus. The word translated children is paidia, a term that means “little children.” The parallel in Luke 18:15 uses a different term that means “newborn babies,” indicating that some at least were infants. However in Mark this word paidia is also used of a 12 year old girl, so we may understand that they were bringing children of all ages to Jesus, for at the age of 13 a Jewish boy or girl was considered to have entered the realm of adulthood.

Now the question is, “Why were they bringing the children to Jesus?” Mark supplies with a brief explanation: “So that He might touch them.” Matthew’s account tells us that they also wanted Jesus to pray for the children. But why did they want Jesus to touch and pray for the children? We can only assume that the parents had come into contact with Jesus previously, or had heard of Him, and had seen or heard how His touch had healed lepers, cast out demons, restored sight to blind eyes, and made the lame to walk. They desired that this powerful touch might be applied to their children, if not to make them whole, to preserve them from sickness, spiritual malady, and even death. The advances of pre- and neo-natal care in our modern society has blinded us to the reality than in much of the world, infant and child mortality rates are still astounding. In Jesus’ day, in the poorest of cultures, perhaps half of all children born died before the age of twelve.[1] But moreover, it was not just His touch that they desired, but His prayers. It was not uncommon in that day for parents to seek a blessing for their children at the hands of a rabbi, that he might ask God to grant favor to their children during the days of their lives. So, the bringing of these children was a demonstration of the faith that these parents had in the person of Jesus Christ. Hendriksen writes, “How wonderful that in later years believing parents would be able to say to such a child, now arrived at the age of understanding, ‘Think of it, when you, my child, were just a suckling, Jesus took you in His arms and blessed you. Then already you were the object of God’s tender love. And He has been with you ever since. What, then, is your response?”[2]

It is the desire of every godly parent to usher their children into the hands of Jesus for His touch and blessing on their lives. I have been blessed by God with the opportunity to travel the world and lead hundreds of souls to saving faith in Jesus Christ through preaching and personal witnessing, but I would count it all a failure if I had to stand before Jesus and say that I did not bring my very own children to Him. The choice is theirs to make, but as their parent, it is my responsibility to shepherd the hearts of my children into a mature decision to follow Jesus Christ. At the kitchen table of our humble home in Kernersville when Solomon was just three and a half years old, Donia and I experienced the greatest joy of our lives when our son said, “I want to be a Christian.” And there, we had the blessing of sharing with him about sin and his need of a Savior, and hearing his mouth confess Christ as Lord as he opened his heart to Jesus. For nine months, I would whisper the Scriptures over Donia’s belly and we would pray together for our firstborn to know Jesus at an early age, and from the day he was born, we sought always to teach and model what it means to follow Christ. And it is my most frequently voiced prayer when I am alone with God that He would continue to grow Solomon into a mature understanding of what that decision means and that Salem would soon follow in making that decision. If you want to know how to pray for Donia and me, I can’t think of anything more important for you to pray for than this – that we would be effective in bringing our children to Jesus. I have been a failure on many levels in life and am by no means a perfect parent, but if I fail in bringing my children to Jesus, no success in any other area of life will compensate.

Life is full of important responsibilities for us all, but none is more important than this – that we bring our little ones to Jesus. You may say, “Pastor, my children are grown now.” I say, they are still your children, and you ought to still be standing at the door knocking, asking Jesus to touch them and bless them and bring them to a saving knowledge of Himself. It is never too late. And some others now have that opportunity to do the same with grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. Pray for them in private, and let them hear you pray for them when you are together that Christ would touch and bless them, and do not let a single opportunity pass that you could take them one step closer to Him. And if you do not have children of your own, think of the countless children who do not have godly parents ushering them into the presence of Jesus, and step into the life of one of those children to shepherd them into the fold of Jesus.

What a stark contrast we see when we juxtapose the desire of these godly disciples with …

B. The Disposition of Grumpy Disciples (v13b)

“But the disciples rebuked them.”

How disappointing it must have been for these godly parents who sought the Lord’s blessing on their children to meet instead these disciples who were less than hospitable. The word translated rebuked here has been found elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel. In Mark 1 and Mark 9, it is the way that Jesus spoke to a demon. In Mark 4, it is the way that Jesus spoke to the storm. In Mark 8, it is the way that Jesus spoke to Peter when He said, “Get behind me, Satan.” Get this – the disciples spoke to these parents who came to Jesus in faith in the same way that Jesus addressed demons(!) – rebuking them, as it were commanding them to leave their presence. We can’t fathom that, can we? After all, do they not remember what Jesus said in 9:37 – “Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me”? Do they not remember what He said in 9:42 – “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea”? How quickly they seem to have forgotten.

But before we are too hard on the disciples, let us ask ourselves, “Do we not remember how the Lord said …”? Are we not prone to forget the commands and exhortations of Scripture and resort instead to the thinking of our human nature and our culture? Indeed, we do the same. The words of Christ run so radically contrary to our nature and our culture that we often conveniently forget them and resort, as Peter did when he rebuked the Lord about the message of the cross, to setting our minds on man’s interests rather than God’s. The ancient world did not look upon children with favor. Children were often considered a financial burden on a family, and were not looked upon with honor by the society as they are today. In some ancient cultures, children were literally thrown away if their parents did not want them. Sometimes discarded children would be gathered by unscrupulous people for raising and training into prostitution, gladiatorial sport, or begging. At times, the children would even be disfigured to evoke more pity when they begged on the streets.[3] And in many parts of the world today, this is still happening. So the disciples’ disposition here shows that they looked at children through the same lens that the rest of the world used – they were an unnecessary, undignified, and unwelcome distraction to more important matters.

Some would likely point to the numerous offerings churches have put forth today as ministries to children and say, “See how things have changed?” Indeed, we have come a long way from the ancient view of children, but our progress has been slow and is incomplete. I can’t help wondering if the message that we send to our young people by placing them here and there in age-graded activities is actually sending a different message. Might it be that much of what is done today in the name of “children’s ministries” is really a more polite way of saying, “Now, now, little ones, you go off and play games and sing songs while we grown ups deal with more important matters”? Is our desire really to provide age-appropriate biblical instruction, or is it to minimize noise and distraction so that we can do grown-up things in “big church”? I don’t want anyone to misunderstand me here and think I am unappreciative of the years of faithful service that many in this church and other churches have given in ministering to children, because I do recognize and appreciate it. But I want to say loud and clear that I believe the proper place for children in church is seated beside of mom and dad where they learn to worship together as a family and learn from an early age the discipline of hearing biblical instruction, which is not always accompanied by fun and games and movies. It is a very sobering statistic that most churched young people do not continue to be active in church life once they move past the youth group. I believe that one of the most important reasons for this is that from birth, the church has said, “What takes place in here is not for you, now move along with the rest of the kiddies to the playground.” We tell people that church is great for building family relationships, yet in our church programming, we do little to foster family togetherness, but rather send the babies over here, and the toddlers over here, and the teenagers over here, while mom and dad go over there and do something altogether different.

We must ask ourselves some difficult questions. When a child is seated near you in service and begins to make noise or move around, does your countenance reflect joy that a parent has sought to incorporate the child into the life of the family of God, or does it reflect a perturbed grimace that could be likened to the disciples’ rebuke? What does our church budget say about our desire to reach children for Jesus? What do the conditions of our facilities or the scheduling of our activities and programs say? Do they say, “Jesus loves the little children”? Or do they say, “Get out of here so we important adults can do important grown-up stuff”? When godly parents seek to bring their children to Jesus, are they met with the disposition of grumpy disciples or will they hear …

C. The Declaration of a Gracious Savior (14a, 16)

The first words of v14 are important: “But when Jesus saw this.” Jesus saw the disciples rebuking the children and their parents. Jesus sees everything that is done, and takes special notice of those things that His people do in His name. And when He saw this, the Bible tells us that “He was indignant.” This is the only time in the NT that this word is used of the Lord Jesus. The word used here indicates that he was aroused to anger. One commentator explains that the word carries a connotation, “to vent oneself in expressed displeasure rather than simply brooding about it.”[4] Jesus was angry and He voiced his anger toward His disciples in perhaps an unprecedented way. Some people object to the image of an angry Jesus, thinking it somehow a contradiction to His love. But notice here that His love is the reason for His anger. “He was angry with His disciples because He loved so deeply and tenderly the little ones and the ones who brought them.”[5]

Lovingly, tenderly, graciously, Jesus said, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them.” He wants the children to have access to Him, and He doesn’t want anyone or anything standing in the way of them. The phrase, “Do not hinder them,” might be translated, “Stop hindering them,” indicating that the disciples were physically restraining these families from reaching Jesus. Jesus’ words remove the obstacles from the path of faith and open the door of access to His touch and His blessing. And He did more for them than they asked. If you note in v16, He did more than just touch them and pray for them; Jesus actually took the children one by one up into His arms and lay His hands on them and blessed them. The word used for blessed is intensive, causing some to render it, “He fervently blessed them.” He did not recite over them words of meaningless repetition, but genuinely and enthusiastically pronounced sincere words of blessing over them as He lifted them in His arms. Do you have hopes, dreams and prayers of what Christ can do for your children? Oh, He can do all that you desire, and even more than you can imagine. But woe to that one who would stand in the way. With that one He will be indignant and has promised something worse than a millstone around the neck! As a church, we must be careful not to represent Jesus to the city in which we live, as the disciples had done. We must not say to them: “This is how Jesus is – He has no time for you and your children!”[6] Rather we must represent Him truly and make sure they know that we serve a Lord and Savior who earnestly desires for them to come and bring the children to Him so that He can touch their lives, lift them into His arms, close to His heart, and bless them.

These differing perspectives about children deserve our attention. Will we join the untold number of godly parents and others who sought to bring their children to Jesus in spite of any obstacles that stood in their way? Will we be like the disciples and usher the children off to the playground under the assumption that Jesus has more important things to do? Will we show the community around us a Jesus who says, “Let the children come”?

There is another aspect of this story that is perhaps even more important than what our attitude is toward children. This second aspect has to do with what our attitude is toward Christ. This is more than just an endearing story about Jesus and some children. These children go from being the objects of His love to be objects of His lesson to the multitudes. There is something in them that all of us must emulate.

II. The Demonstrative Pattern of Children (vv14b-15)

According to Jesus’ words in this text, we have much to learn from children. While the prevailing mindset may be that children need to be more like us grown ups in order to come to Jesus, the Lord says we have it backwards: we grown ups need to be more like children in order to come to Him. As we look at the children who were brought to Jesus, we see a demonstration of what it means to receive the Kingdom of God and what it means to respond to the Kingdom offer.

A. Children Demonstrate the Characteristics of Kingdom Recipients (14b)

For the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

This statement has been misunderstood, misinterpreted, misapplied, and misused in countless ways through the centuries to foster all kinds of error in what it means to be saved. It is not uncommon to hear this phrase explained in sermons, Sunday School lessons and inspirational writings as meaning that there are inherent qualities in children that make them more acceptable to Jesus than adults. We are often told that these words mean that in order to become a follower of Jesus, one must be humble, innocent, and willing to believe the unbelievable. However, we must not forget that children can be selfish, mean, ungrateful and demanding also. We are not born pure only to become sinners later in life. The book of Ephesians teaches that we are by nature children of wrath! We are born with a sin nature, and anyone who denies that has never raised children. What do we say about someone who is self-centered, demanding and petty? We say they are being childish. So, if we assume that Jesus commends children because of their innocence, purity, or any other characteristic within them, then we must conclude that the disciples’ acceptability in God’s kingdom depends on them having similar virtues in themselves. “But, as Mark’s depiction of the disciples makes repeatedly clear, that is exactly what they are not, nor are we.”[7]

It is not the inherent characteristics that children have demonstrate what it means to receive the kingdom, but rather it is what children lack. They are helpless, small, and dependent totally on the kindness of others to supply for them what they cannot attain on their own. A little child has nothing to bring, no credits, no clout, no claims; whatever a child receives, he or she receives as a result of sheer neediness and the grace of another person to meet that need in spite of the lack of any merits within him or herself. And so, the Lord Jesus says that Kingdom belongs to such as these, that is, to those who are willing to recognize their own smallness, their own helplessness, their own dependence on the kindness of God’s grace. The Kingdom stands open to those who would receive it as a gift of grace, not as a reward for merit, as has been said, “Only empty hands can be filled.” If you come to Jesus thinking that you have earned or deserve to be a partaker of His Kingdom, then you have missed it. You must come like a child, in neediness, and recognize that He wants to give you something you don’t deserve because of His love for you and His grace. Smallness, neediness, helplessness, dependence – these are the characteristics of Kingdom recipients, and “whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.” And with these words in v15, Jesus teaches us that …

B. Children Demonstrate the Choice of Kingdom Response (15)

These words indicate that we have a choice to make in response to the offer of Christ’s Kingdom: We will either receive the Kingdom like a child, or we will not enter it at all. There is a strong double-negative in the Greek text here, handled by the NASB with just the simple word not. But if we would be true to the intention of the text, we must say that Jesus says, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will “No, Not enter it at all.” This categorically excludes any other means of entry into the Kingdom.[8] Receive it as a gift you do not deserve or don’t receive it at all.

A baby is crying in the corner of the room. Why does the baby cry? Is he hungry? Does she have a dirty diaper that needs changing? Why doesn’t the baby just take action and feed himself or clean herself up? Because that baby cannot. And just like that baby, we stand in need of food we cannot produce for ourselves, in need of cleansing that we cannot perform on ourselves. Our only hope is to receive the gracious offer of Jesus to meet our need and clean us from the filth of our sins. And He offers to do just that for us, unmerited, undeserved, because He loves us. He offers us the immeasurable gift of Himself and all the benefits of knowing Him as Lord and Savior. But the question is, “Will we receive the gift?” If we will not, then we are without help and without hope, powerless to do anything of our own to remedy our own condition. The old gospel song, “Rock Of Ages,” says, “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling; naked, come to Thee for dress; helpless, look to Thee for grace; foul, I to the Fountain fly; wash me Savior, or I die.”

The sovereign God of the Universe has opened a door of access to us, from the youngest to the oldest, and said, “Come to Me. Be not hindered. My grace shall supply all your need, even the greatest need you have – that of cleansing from your sins.” The Lord Jesus died your death and mine on Calvary’s cross and received in Himself the due penalty of our sins, when He Himself had committed none. He died for you. He died for Me. And He is risen from the dead, beckoning you to come to Him like a child: needy, helpless, dependent. Receive what He offers as a child receives an undeserved gift of love. But if you would say to Him, “No thank you. I will do it myself,” He says, “you will not enter at all.” This is the choice we must make in response to the offer of His Kingdom. Some of us may need to receive that gift this very day.

[1] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 161-162.

[2] William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Mark (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975), 385.

[3] David E. Garland, The NIV Application Commentary: Mark (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 385.

[4] James R. Edwards, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 306.

[5] Hendriksen, 383.

[6] Sinclair B. Ferguson, Let’s Study Mark (Carlisle, Penn.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), 161.

[7] Edwards, 307.

[8] D. Edmond Hiebert, The Gospel of Mark: An Expositional Commentary (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1994), 283.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

SemEx Audio: Isaiah 38-40

Audio can be found online here for the lectures on Isaiah 38-40 from Seminary Extension

SemEx Audio: Isaiah 36-37

Audio can be found online here for the lectures on Isaiah 36-37 from Seminary Extension.

Jesus Speaks About Divorce: Mark 10:1-12

Audio available here.

When we introduce the subject of divorce, an uncomfortable silence comes over the room. Today, in the average Baptist church on a typical Sunday morning, it would be a rarity to find one person who has not been affected by it one way or another. There are those who have been divorced, those whose parents have been divorced, those whose children have been divorced, and those whose siblings have been divorced. Few, if any, of us are not in one of those categories. But beyond these immediate connections, we are surrounded by friends who have been divorced, celebrities who have been divorced, and leaders who have been divorced. It affects us all. Every year, more than one million children in America watch their parents’ marriage come to an end. Recent studies have shown that divorce in America has become a market driven industry. There is much money to be made out there in providing goods and services to the countless individuals who are determined to get out of their marriages. A recent study by Georgia State University set out to measure the cost of “family fragmentation” by analyzing the expenses associated with welfare, health care, criminal justice, education, and lost tax revenue from individuals who are more likely to be poor or to be imprisoned for a part of their wage-earning lives. These researchers determined that divorce and unwed parenting costs American taxpayers 112 billion dollars per year. But as politicians debate with one another about how to combat the declining economy, little is said about matters of morality such as this. While divorce rates have declined somewhat over the last few years, so have marriage rates. Since the first “no-fault” divorce laws were put in place in America, we have seen an alarming decline in family-related statistics. In 1970, 72% of the American population were married. In 2002, that number had fallen to only 59%. While many of you were married early in life and have celebrated milestone anniversaries, today people are marrying much later, and are not seeing as many milestones. Recent studies show that the number of married couples who celebrate their fifth anniversary is 82%, but the figures drop drastically: Only 65% reach ten years, 52% reach fifteen years, 33% reach 25 years, 20% reach 35 years, and sadly only 5% reach 50 years. It seems that many people, having seen so much divorce in their lifetimes and felt the pain of it so often, are giving up on marriage altogether and opting for cohabitation, promiscuity, and alternative definitions of family. So, as difficult and uncomfortable a subject as divorce is for us to discuss, we see from these statistics that the need to have such a discussion has never been greater.

In our passage today, Jesus is confronted with a question about divorce. As we explore the text, we will come to understand God’s intention for marriage and be called as Christians to pursue a higher calling in marriage than the world around us expects.

I. The question being asked: “Whether it was lawful for a man to divorce a wife.” (vv1-2)

Now, before we get into the question and its answer, we need to observe a few important details about the setting of this question.

A. Who Asked The Question?

Jesus was asked this question by some Pharisees. It has been some time since we encountered the Pharisees in the text, so let’s remind ourselves of who they are. The name Pharisee means something like “separatist.” They were a prominent and powerful group of Jewish laymen who sought to apply Biblical instruction to every aspect of life. This required them to engage in endless discussions of interpretation, as they sought to explain in a detailed way what every statement of the law required. In doing so, they created “a fence around the Law” consisting of oral teachings which they hoped would protect any pious Jew from breaking God’s law in any situation that arose. These oral laws were later codified in the Mishnah and became as binding as the Bible itself. For instance, the Sabbath commandment was expanded to include 39 prohibitions of various kinds of work that could not be done on the Sabbath. This kind of detailed application of the Law quickly gave way to legalism, that system of determining a person’s righteousness by their rule-keeping without regard to the condition of their hearts.

And so, as they were intent on doing with every element of life, the Pharisees sought to draw lines about the issue of divorce. It should be admitted up front that the Law said very little about divorce. In Leviticus 21, the priests were forbidden to marry divorced women, indicating that divorce was practiced in ancient Israel. In Deuteronomy 24:1-4, we have one of the only clear Laws regarding divorce in the Old Testament. There it says, “When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house, and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man's wife, and if the latter husband turns against her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her to be his wife, then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance.” We can easily see that this Law does not command, endorse, or sanction divorce, but rather serves as a restraint against the casual dismissal of a wife, and a protection for the rights and dignity of women. It would also prevent men engaging in “wife-swapping” back and forth. But from this statement, the opinions of the Pharisees had divided into two primary schools of thought. The first, the school of Rabbi Shammai, emphasized the words “some indecency”, and concluded that divorce must be permissible in the case of sexual unfaithfulness. After all, the Law prescribed a punishment of death for adultery, and death would end the marriage covenant enabling the living partner to remarry. So, rather than pursuing death in the case of adultery, the followers of Shammai interpreted that they could instead simply issue a certificate of divorce. The second school of thought was that of the Rabbi Hillel. This interpretation focused on the words “finds no favor” and concluded that a man could divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever. If she spoiled dinner, if she talked so loudly that the neighbors could hear her, or if she insulted him publicly, or any other reason that she was no longer favorable to him, he could give her a certificate of divorce. And so they bring the matter to Jesus to find His opinion on the question. But as we will presently see, this was no question of serious curiosity, for we are presented with their motive.

B. Why Did They Ask the Question?

Mark tells us that when they asked Jesus this question about divorce they were “testing Him.” It is interesting to note that this word for “testing” is used four times in the Gospel of Mark. Three of those times it occurs with reference to the Pharisees questioning Jesus: in Mark 8, regarding a sign from heaven; here in Mark 10 about divorce; and in Mark 12 about taxes. But the fourth time it is used is in Mark 1, referring to Jesus being tempted by Satan. It is as if “Mark means us to ask, ‘Where did I see this kind of testing before? Why, it was when Satan tested Jesus in the wilderness!’”[1] They were seeking the same thing Satan was seeking – to discredit and disqualify Jesus from fulfilling His messianic mission. If they can catch Him in a trap here, and put Him on the spot, then by His own words He would be discredited in the yes of the public and the crowds would turn away from him.[2] If Jesus were to side with Shammai, then those who follow Hillel would be offended at His strict handling of the oral tradition. If He sided with Hillel, then the followers of Shammai would turn away branding Him a liberal. But if we go one step further in our exploration of the setting, we will see that more than just Jesus’ reputation is at stake. The answer to this question may cost Him his life. We see that as we ask …

C. Where Did They Ask the Question?

From verse 1, we know that Jesus had left Capernaum in Galilee and moved southward into Judea and beyond the Jordan. This would put him in the region known as Perea, which was the territory governed by Herod Antipas. That is significant for understanding the trap that the Pharisees sought to set for Jesus. You may recall from Mark 6 that John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded for his denouncement of the marriage of Herod Antipas and Herodias. Herodias had been married to the brother of Antipas, Herod Philip. But it came about that on a journey to Rome, Herod Antipas stopped off to lodge with Herod Philip and Herodias, and during that stay Antipas and Herodias took a liking to each other. Herodias divorced Philip and persuaded Antipas to divorce his wife as well so that the two could be married. John the Baptist began to preach openly and often that this was not right, and ultimately this led to his death.

Now, Herod was no fan of the Pharisees and the feeling was mutual. The Pharisees despised him because he was not even a Jew in the purest sense. He was an Edomite, and what’s worse, he was a puppet of the Roman Emperor. His authority in Israel was a constant reminder to the Jewish people that they were under enemy occupation. But a common enemy will bring people together in surprising ways. And back in Mark 3:6, we read that that the Pharisees had begun to conspire with the Herodians (those who supported the government of the family of Herod the Great) as to how they might destroy Jesus. Therefore it is not hard for us to imagine that the timing and location of this question was intended to lead Jesus to the same end that John the Baptist met. If they could get Jesus to denounce divorce, it would be perceived as an attack on Herod Antipas, and like John the Baptist, Jesus would also be put to death.

From these considerations, we see that the issue for the Pharisees was not really divorce, but Jesus Himself was the issue. Nevertheless, without apology, Jesus addresses the question at hand, and it is in His answer that we find the wisdom of God so desperately needed in our own day.

II. The Answer that Was Given (vv3-12)

Ultimately, it does not matter what Oprah, Dr. Phil, USA Today, or Entertainment Tonight think about marriage and divorce. It does not matter what coworkers around the water cooler at the office think, or well-meaning but misguided friends and family members think. For that matter, neither does it matter what I or any other pastor thinks about the subject. What matters is what Jesus Christ says about it, and it is to His words that we must now turn.

B. Jesus Answers With Biblical Commands (vv3-9)

“What did Moses command you?” Jesus says. The Pharisees were viewed by many as experts on matters of religion and righteousness, but Jesus says that the answer to this question and every other important question of life is not found in their opinions but in the eternal and unchanging Word of God, which is authoritative and sufficient for all matters of godly living.

The Pharisees, you will note, dodge the question by altering it. “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” That wasn’t the question. The question was not what did he permit, but what did he command. The passage to which they are referring is obviously Deut. 24, and as we have already seen, the only commandment it offers is that a man who divorces his wife may not remarry her after she marries another. But the Pharisees assumed this meant that it was OK with Moses for a man to divorce his wife. But Moses gave no such permission. Jesus said that Moses wrote this “Because of your hardness of heart.” In other words, Moses understood that some people will stubbornly refuse to submit themselves to biblical commands. They are determined to pursue the desires of their sinful nature and will not be averted by Biblical teachings. Moses recognized this, and more importantly God recognized it. The Law of Moses does not originate with Moses. It originates with God and is passed down to men through Moses. And because God knows that some people will do what they want to do with no regard for biblical commandments, immorality can be restrained or legislated through circumstantial laws. The law given in Deuteronomy 24 neither authorizes or sanctions divorce, but protects innocent people from being victimized by unscrupulous men who are driven by lust, greed, and pride.

However, this law does not reflect God’s higher and purer purposes for marriage, and Jesus points this out by turning their attention beyond the circumstantial laws to God’s original design for humanity as found in Genesis. In vv6-8, Jesus ties together Genesis 1:27 which says, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them,” and Genesis 2:24 which says, “ For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” Because God has created men and women with equal dignity and worth as co-bearers of the divine image, each needs the other in a complementary way to live out God’s purposes for humanity. And when they come together as husband and wife, God makes the two into one flesh. Jesus says, “So they are no longer two, but one flesh.” The two individuals have become, by God’s design and by God’s miraculous work, a single unity. No longer is their “his” and “hers”, “me” and “you”, but a unique and spiritually significant “ours” and “we.” And from this Jesus draws an important an authoritative command: “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” Therefore, those who enter into marriage must not do so lightly, but they must understand that they are submitting themselves unto the Lord by covenant vows and entering into a divinely designed and divinely accomplished indissoluble union. To later seek to dissolve that which God has made indissoluble is to arrogantly defy an act of God.[3]

Now, it is important for us to understand that Jesus ends the public discussion here. What more can He say than to you He hath said? This is God’s purpose for marriage, and in addressing it from this perspective, Jesus points us away to the excuses we are inclined to offer for divorce, and toward the intention which God has in marriage. And just as we are left scratching our heads about the severity of this word, so were His disciples. When they got behind closed doors with Him, they began to ask him more questions about this. And this is good advice for all of us – get alone with Jesus and open God’s word and inquire further about the matter if you have more questions. Mark has preserved for us Jesus’ further discussion in private with the disciples. We don’t know all the questions they asked, but whatever they were, …

B. Jesus Answers with Biblical Consequences (vv11-12)

So permanent is the marriage union in the eyes of God, that to divorce and remarry another is to commit adultery. The sin of divorce is compounded and other parties are now implicated in the matter. This is true for the man who initiates divorce, and it is true for the woman. In Jewish law, there was no provision for a woman to divorce under any circumstances, but Jesus recognizes that this is not the case everywhere. And God’s design for humanity is not bound by uniquenesses of Jewish culture. The same is true for men and women, wherever and whenever they are found: to divorce and remarry, Jesus says, is to commit adultery.

Now, this is not all that needs to be said about marriage, divorce, and remarriage, but we should note that it is all that is said here. But we still have questions. We are undoubtedly left uncomfortable after such pointed words, and many will want to say, “But, my circumstances were unusual, and therefore, I must have some sort of excuse.” Surely God’s word must say something more about exceptions. But before we turn to other passages that may address exceptions, we must understand that a goodly number of Christian people in the first century had only this text. They could not compare Mark with Matthew or with First Corinthians, for Mark was all they had. And Mark is sufficient for us to understand that God views marriage as a permanent covenant that humanity must treasure, safeguard, and persevere in joy and love in the midst of hardship. No marriage is easy, because marriage brings two sinful people together. None of us are married to perfect spouses, because there is no such thing. Within a relatively brief span of time, the romantic fantasies that entertain the minds of young lovers evaporates and they are left with the reality of living together with someone who is hard to live with. That is a universal experience in which none of us are unique exceptions. And every single person, every married person, and every widowed person, divorced person, and remarried person must come to grips with that reality.

But what about exceptions? In the parallel passage in Matthew 19, Jesus says that remarriage following divorce is adultery “except for immorality.” The word translated “immorality” there is the Greek word porneia, which has a broad meaning covering the entire catalog of sexual sin. In some cases, the context helps us determine a more precise meaning, such as adultery. That may be the case in Matthew 19, but understand that Jesus is not saying that adultery is a license for divorce, or that it necessitates divorce. Reconciliation is possible, if both parties are willing to submit themselves to the Lord and exercise difficult grace in those circumstances. But where adultery or some other kind of sexual betrayal has occurred, the offending party has already sought to dissolve the marriage covenant through his or her actions. Under Old Testament Law, one found guilty of adultery could be punished by death. So the divorce and remarriage following adultery is treated as if it followed the death of a spouse. That doesn’t make it right or change God’s intention for marriage. It only means that in such cases, one should not look upon the innocent party as an adulterer.

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul gives permission for remarriage when a believer has been abandoned by an unbeliever. But he warns the believer against pursuing a divorce. As long as the unbeliever is willing to continue in the marriage, the believer must continue. If the unbeliever leaves and pursues divorce, the believer is to let them go. Also in the same chapter, Paul admonishes husbands and wives to never seek divorce, but if it becomes inevitable, to not seek remarriage to another. This may be the case when a partner in marriage is being abused. I would never counsel someone to subject themselves to continued abuse in marriage, but to separate from their spouse with the intention of bringing the spouse to repentance so that reconciliation may occur. I give the same advice to those in other difficult circumstances. Separation can have a disciplinary and reconciling purpose, carried out in the same manner as church discipline should be.

But then we come to the reality that many have divorced and in some cases remarried, giving no thought to Biblical commands or Biblical consequences, and are faced with the difficult question of what to do now. First and foremost, we must confess our sins before God. The Greek word most often translated as confess in the NT is the word homologeo, which means literally, “To say the same thing.” That means we must agree with God that what we have done is wrong. As long as we try to excuse and justify ourselves, we distance ourselves from grace. God’s love and grace is demonstrated to us in the death of Jesus Christ for sins. To say that our sins are small and no significant matter at all is to say that the Savior and the Death He died is small and insignificant. We must humbly and contritely acknowledge our sin before the Lord and seek His forgiveness. We must stop the blame game and recognize that since we are all sinners by nature and by choice, there are no real innocent parties. Where sin affects our lives, we must take responsibility for our own part in the matter, call it what it is before God, and receive the grace that Christ died to afford us.

If a person divorced but not remarried, then he or she must commit themselves to reconciling with the former spouse. If that former spouse has already remarried, then we leave them in peace in their current relationship, accept God’s forgiveness, and move forward as God directs. But if a person has divorced and remarried already, and now finds themselves in guilt and fear about what they have done, we must recognize that two wrongs don’t make a right. It would not please God for you to divorce the present spouse in order to pursue the former. We must accept God’s grace and commit to view the present marriage from God’s perspective as a permanent union that cannot be torn asunder.

Perhaps a person is considering putting an end to their marriage because they feel that the hurt is too deep and the differences too great for the marriage to survive. We would encourage to you seek godly counsel together. Separation may be in order while the wounds are healed, and should be done immediately if one’s personal safety or the safety of one’s children is in jeopardy. But as Christian people we must eliminate the word divorce from our vocabulary. And all of God’s people, whatever their present state, must recognize God’s design for marriage and fight with all our strength and all divine enablement to preserve marriage, whether it is our own, or our loved ones and friends. We must not allow ourselves to become another statistic, but by God’s grace and strength, we must stand out as shining exceptions to the cultural norm. We must determine that marriage is worth fighting for. And we must set a guard over our mouths that we wouldn’t give cavalier advice to those in difficult marriages, but rather encourage and admonish them to persevere in the midst of hardship.

In Malachi 2:16, God says, “I hate divorce.” Indeed, God hates all sin, but time and time again in Scripture we find that God does not hate sinners. Jesus is a friend of sinners, and it doesn’t matter what our sin is, He invites us to Himself where we can find forgiveness for past sins and a new life in which we are divinely empowered by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit to live out God’s purposes. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, Jesus died for your sins. They received their full punishment on His cross, and if you will turn to Him as Lord and Savior He will cleanse you from the failures of your past and give you a brand new future of abundant and eternal life with God.

If you are a Christian today, and the Word of God is piercing your conscience about a past sin, be it adultery, sexual sin, divorce, or any other matter, then we would beckon you to cast yourself on the mercy of God and receive His forgiving grace as you commit to live out His will in His way by the power of the Spirit who lives within you. And let this text be a clarion call to every married person and every person who desires to marry to fight for the preservation of marriage.

[1] Sinclair Ferguson, Let’s Study Mark (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1999), 156-157.

[2] William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Mark (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975), 375.

[3] Hendriksen, 379.