Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Fruitless Religion or Faithful Relationship: Mark 11:11-26

I have a good friend who grew up on a farm with a large apple orchard. He told me that he can remember seeing his dad carry a baseball bat out to the orchard where he would beat one of the apple trees near the trunk six or eight times. When he asked his dad why he did this, he was told that the tree had stopped producing fruit, and that whacking it with the bat would make it produce fruit again. Now, you have to understand, I am somewhat of a skeptic. I rarely take something at face value without first exploring it further. So, when I heard this, I didn’t want to call my friend or his dad a liar. After all, all I know about apples is that they taste good. So, I did a little research about this rather bizarre horticultural practice. And what I discovered was that my friend’s dad was right. It seems that beating the tree with a baseball bat “frightens” the tree, for lack of a better word, into thinking that it is going to die. It then goes into survival mode, and it begins to work harder to make itself fruitful again. Of course, that only works if the tree is not already dead. If it is dead, you just have to cut it down and plant a new one.

In our passage today, Jesus has a run-in with an unfruitful fig tree. Rather than striking the trunk with a large stick (baseball bats didn’t come around until about 1800 years later), Jesus cursed the fig tree, saying to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” And as they were passing by the tree the next morning, they saw the tree, and they noticed that it had withered, the Bible says, “from the roots.” This was a miracle that occurred through the powerful word of Christ. He said it, and it happened. This is the last recorded miracle in Mark’s Gospel before the crucifixion, and it is the only one in the gospels which is completely destructive in nature. One may think of the incident involving the drowning of the swine in Mark 5, but remember that this miracle was not completely destructive, for it also involved the deliverance of a man who was possessed by a legion of demons. We can at least say that something good happened in that story. In this one, there is no positive side. The fig tree was cursed, and it withered up and died.

Now, this has met with an interesting range of responses from those who seek to interpret the passage. The famous atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, in his book Why I Am Not a Christian, accused Jesus of ‘vindictive fury’ in this incident, for the Scriptures plainly say that “it was not the season for figs.” This incident “tarnished the character of Jesus in Russell’s opinion, leading him to write, “I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history.”[1] Many who are friendlier to the Christian faith than Bertrand Russell was have stumbled over the passage for the same reason.

However, this is a hasty conclusion that demonstrates no understanding of what goes on during the fruit-bearing cycle of a fig tree. This event takes place on the Monday of Passover week, which would likely be in March or April. Prior to that time, fig trees sprout small green buds that the Hebrew people called paggim. Shortly after those appear, the leaves begin to come out on the branches. Therefore, a fig tree that is in leaf should be loaded with paggim, which will mature into figs during the summer months. These paggim were frequently eaten even in their early stages. Even though it was not the season for fully ripened figs, seeing the tree in leaf, Jesus expected it to offer Him something which would satisfy His hunger. But it didn’t. And since there were no paggim on the tree at this stage, there would be no figs on it later.[2]

Now we should not think that Jesus was surprised by this. After all, in the immediately preceding passage, He knows about the location of a specific animal in a nearby town. Surely He knows before He comes to the fig tree knowing that it will not have any edible buds on it. This particular tree has been chosen by Him for a specific purpose.

In Mark’s Gospel, we frequently encounter a literary device that the scholars refer to as intercalation. For simplicity, we call it a sandwich. We see the encounter with the fig tree in verses 12-14, and then return to the fig tree in verses 20-21. In the intervening verses we have the account of Jesus in the Temple. Now, when Mark employs this sandwich tactic, he intends for the two interwoven stories to work together to demonstrate the same point. The two episodes interpret one another. So, what happens with the fig tree and what happens in the Temple are interrelated, but how?

In the prophetic books of the Old Testament, we find several occasions where the prophets not only spoke, but acted out in dramatic fashion to illustrate visually the truth they wished to convey. In Isaiah 20, the prophet Isaiah was commanded by God to walk about naked and barefoot to illustrate how the Assyrians would shamefully lead the people of Egypt and Cush into captivity barefoot and naked. This was a warning to the people of Judah to not put their trust in these foreign powers for protection. This is but one example, but others could be given. In a similar way, the cursing of the fig tree is a prophetic action that accompanies the incident at the Temple and gives insight into what Jesus says and does there.

Because of its abundant fruit and its pleasant shade, the fig tree had become a symbol of Israel. God had chosen them to bear fruit for Him and promised them provision and protection. But like this fig tree which Jesus encountered on that Monday morning, the religious practices of Israel had become fruitless. Though the Temple was bustling with more activity than at any point in its history, it had ceased to produce any spiritual benefit for those who came in and out of it. And therefore, like the fig tree, the Temple was under the judgment of God. We often call this temple episode the “cleansing of the Temple,” as if it was Jesus’ intention to reform it and restore it to its former state. But this is not the case. In His words and actions, Jesus was declaring that the Temple would have no place or function in the Kingdom Christ had come to establish. Just as no one would ever eat fruit from the fig tree again, so also no one would ever find access to God through the religious practices of Jerusalem’s Temple.

The Temple of Jesus’ day was the third temple in Jerusalem. The first was Solomon’s Temple, destroyed by the Babylonians when they conquered the Southern Kingdom in 586 BC. The second was built by those who returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity under the leadership of Zerubbabel. Around 20 BC, Herod the Great began a massive campaign to build an even greater Temple. At the time that Jesus entered Jerusalem, it was still under construction, some fifty years later. Construction would not be completed until about 35 years later, in 66 AD. Eighty-six years in the making, the Temple would only survive for four years before the Romans leveled it. It has never been rebuilt. And if it ever is rebuilt, it will not change what took place on the Monday of Passover week when Jesus pronounced it to be fruitless. Christ Himself has become the dwelling place of God among men, and access to God now found only through personal faith in Him, not through religious rituals, professional priesthoods, and sacred sanctuaries.

In cursing the fig tree and condemning the Temple, Jesus pronounced full and final judgment on fruitless religion. But fruitless religion has not disappeared. It is found around the world today wherever people attempt to make spiritual headway apart from personal devotion to Jesus Christ. And much to our surprise, fruitless religion is often found even in the church of Jesus Christ, where man made-traditions, mechanistic programs, and cultural trappings have usurped the prominence of Christ. It does not matter when or where it takes place, fruitless religion remains under the condemnation of God in Christ.

Now, in the text, we find a contrast between fruitless religion and a faithful relationship with God. We must beware of the former, and be committed to the latter. To those two matters we turn our attention now.

I. We must beware of fruitless religion (vv11-21)

When Jesus sees a fig tree full of leaves, He expects to find edible buds on it to satisfy His hunger. Similarly, when people see the hustle and bustle of Temple activity, they expect to find spiritual help.

On the night before Jesus entered the Temple, the evening of the same day in which Jesus entered Jerusalem to the shouts of praising from the people, verse 11 tells us that He “came into the temple; and after looking around at everything, He left for Bethany ….” Notice what He saw: “Everything.” He saw all that was going on in the Temple. He saw the buying and selling of sacrificial animals. He saw the currency exchange taking place. He saw the slaughter of the animals. He saw the practices of the priesthood. He saw it all. And certainly there was much to see. The first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus tells us that in the year that the Temple was completed, some 30 years after this incident, more than 250,000 lambs were slaughtered at Passover.[3] There was much activity, but none of it was accomplishing anything of spiritual significance. The temple was like a tree full of leaves, but barren of fruit.

The Temple consisted of four divisions. The first division one would come to, the largest section of the Temple grounds, was designated as the Court of the Gentiles. Thirty-five acres in area, this portion of the Temple was surrounded by rows of massive columns thirty feet high and so big around that it took three adults holding hands to reach around them. A wall separated this area from the sanctuary proper, and a sign on the wall warned that no foreigners could enter any further upon the penalty of death. While this area was supposedly for God-fearing Gentiles to come and worship, the area had been overtaken by the trade of currency and animals. Currency exchange was necessary since the Temple would not receive Roman money, and the sale of animals was offered as a convenience to those who had no livestock of their own, or who had traveled great distances to worship. But, the money-changers and salesmen were charging outrageous fees for their services, and the Temple was taking a cut of the profits. There was no place for Gentiles to worship because of the marketing machine of the temple’s salesmen.

Jesus expressed outrage at this. He drove out the buyers and the sellers, and overturned the tables of the salesmen and the money changers and forbade anyone from carrying this religious merchandise through the courts of the Temple. And He spoke a word of stern rebuke to the religious system of the Temple, saying, “Is it not written, ‘MY HOUSE SHALL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER FOR ALL THE NATIONS.” Here Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 56:7, in which God had declared through the prophet that a day was coming when Gentiles would have no need to fear of being separated from the company of God’s people and would even be welcome as servants of God. But, the Jews had continued to keep that dividing wall in place barring the Gentiles from entering to worship the God who had promised that they would be welcome. Even in the outer court, the Gentiles were crowded out by the commerce taking place there.

Jesus said that this Temple which should have been a house of prayer for all nations had become a ROBBERS’ DEN. Now this is commonly understood as an indictment of the selling practices that were going on in the Temple courts. It is assumed that the money changers charged hefty fees for their services and that there was price gouging going on in the sale of the animals, and this is likely true. But, Jesus calls this a robbers’ den, and the den is not where the robbers rob. It is where the robbers retreat for safety after their deeds have been done. It is their hideout. So, what Jesus likely meant by referring to the temple as a robbers’ den is that the people were living immorally, and running to the temple thinking that they could find cheap grace and libertine license from God to continue their sinful practices. They thought they could come into the temple, perform some religious duty to appease the Lord and return to their godless ways of living. The Temple had become an institution of false assurances.

In this way, the Temple had outlived its usefulness for the purposes of God. Corruption, nationalistic prejudice, and greed had become the core values on which the institution thrived. There was no concern for the true things of God, only the perpetuation of the system. So, when Jesus came in and denounced the whole operation, He was viewed as a threat by those who were benefiting from the status quo. Verse 18 tells us that the chief priests and scribes, those who were profiting from all this activity, began to plot together at how they could destroy Jesus before He persuaded the whole nation to abandon the fruitless religion of the Temple.

When it comes to the fruitless fig tree, T. W. Manson writes that “It is a tale of miraculous power wasted in the service of ill-temper (for the supernatural energy employed to blast the unfortunate tree might have been more usefully expended in forcing a crop of figs out of season.”[4] But Manson does not understand that Jesus’ intention was not to reform the fig tree. His aim was to destroy it because it had ceased to perform the function for which God created it. When it comes to the fruitless religion of Jerusalem’s Temple, Jesus was not out to reform it. It has ceased to perform the function for which God created it. Therefore Jesus denounced it, and in time under the providence of God, the Temple would be toppled to ruins. God would no longer work through the system of the Temple’s ministries and worship to interact with men. He had withdrawn His hand from it altogether. Like the fig tree, the religion of the Temple had withered from the roots up.

Now we must beware that we are not likewise caught up in fruitless religion. Of course, we can easily make the connection between various systems of false belief that are found around the world today. But unfortunately, the same could be said for many churches. Just as Jesus came and observed all that took place at the temple, we must remember that He has a bird’s eye view of all that takes place in His name elsewhere as well. We must see to it that we do not mistake activity for spiritual vitality. They are busy, but spiritually unproductive. And in all their efforts, they actually have the effect of alienating others from God by their systems and programs rather than welcoming them in. And for those who are caught up in the perpetuation of these fruitless systems, there is the pitfall of false assurance, wherein they assume that God is pleased with them because of their religious activity, when in fact their hearts are far from God, and He is far from pleased with them. While God desires for them to be houses of prayer for all nations, they have become dens of robbers. And though the Church of Jesus Christ will continue to be the agent of God’s working in the world until Christ returns, no single church is immune from God withdrawing His hand of blessing and saying, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!”

So, what is the corrective or preventive measure to prevent this tragedy from occurring? In verses 22-26, Jesus states it.

II. We Must Be Committed to a Faithful Relationship with God (vv22-26)

As the disciples pass by the fig tree and notice that it is withered from the roots up, Peter brings this to Jesus’ attention. Jesus response seems to be unrelated: “Have faith in God.” What does this have to do with the withered fig tree?

The fig tree is dead, and so is the Temple. But, if the Temple is no longer the place where God will meet with man, we may wonder what hope does man have? Has God cut off all access to Himself? Jesus here tells His disciples that the Temple is not a necessary mediator between them and God. Because of what Christ has come to do for them, they will be able to come directly to the Father through Him. They need not have faith in temples or priesthoods or rituals. Their faith must be focused upon Christ and on His atoning work. He will die on the cross to bear the penalty of human sin, and be raised from the dead in victory over sin and death. Mark will tell us in Chapter 15 that as He breathed His last breath on the cross, the veil of the temple that served to keep humanity out of the presence of God was torn in two from the top to the bottom. Man would now have access to God through Christ, not through the empty rituals of the priesthood and the Temple. The way to God is through faith, a personal relationship with Him, made available by the shed blood of Jesus Christ, who said in John 14:6, “No one comes to the Father but by Me.”

And this life of faith is demonstrated in our dependence upon God in prayer. By faith one may say to this mountain, “be taken up and cast into the sea.” Now, this is not a promise of the removal of every difficulty in life. In fact the Bible promises that believers in Christ will face tremendous difficulties because of our faith in Him. This is not an invitation to attempt magical miracles as a test of our faith. Notice Jesus does not say, “Whoever says to any mountain,” but “Whoever says to THIS mountain.” Which mountain is He speaking of? It is very likely that He was speaking of the Temple mount. This high place which dominated the skyline of Jerusalem might as well disappear, and in time it would. In Christ, one may have the confident faith to say, “I have no need of this place anymore. It might as well be cast into the sea.” We must not doubt, holding back a secret superstition that temples and rituals are necessary, but believe with all of our hearts that this mountain of fruitless religion is spiritually worthless. And renouncing that fruitless religious system, one may come to God, and have access granted to Him by faith. And having that access, we may confidently present the concerns and needs of our heart to God in prayer. The writer of Hebrews says that because Jesus has become our high priest, we may “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” And because in Christ, God becomes a Father to His people, we may trust that He will give to us all good things.

Verse 24 must not be misunderstood to be a blank check from God. When we pray in Christ’s name, we pray in accordance with His word and His will. There are some things that Christians should not ask for in prayer, and which God will not grant. Every good parent exercises wisdom in granting their children’s requests, and God does the same. We can pray with confidence that even when God does not give us what we want, He will give us something even better. Paul prayed three times that his thorn in the flesh would be removed, but God did not grant that request. Instead, God promised him something better, saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, and my strength is made perfect in your weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). As we make our requests known to God, we may have confidence that He will answer. His answers may not be what we want, what we are looking for, or what we expect, but we can know that He is good, and He meets our needs by His grace. When we don’t get what we want, we can be sure that we will receive something better. And as we grow in spiritual maturity, we will recognize it as such.

And our faith in God will also be demonstrated by the grace that saturates our lives. As we receive God’s grace in the forgiveness of our sins, we are empowered to forgive others with that same grace. In fact, Jesus indicates here that our willingness to forgive others is directly related to our ability to receive forgiveness for our own sins. I like to illustrate this principle like this: God has committed Himself to use the same size scoop for giving grace to us that we use with others. If we use a small scoop to give grace to others, He will use a small scoop for us. If we use a large scoop, so will He. The bottom line is that God would not have us to be receivers only of His grace, but dispensers of it as well. All the rituals of temple sacrifice and offerings have become unnecessary for forgiveness. By faith in God, we may both give and receive grace freely because of what Christ has done for us.

So, as we conclude, we must recall these two important lessons from this passage. We must beware of fruitless religion, that is all leaves and no fruit, all show and no substance, all activity and no spiritual vitality. And we must be committed to a faithful relationship with God through Christ – a relationship that is built on personal faith and trust, evidenced by dependence on God in prayer, and saturated in grace. As we turn toward God in faith, we turn our backs on the mountains of false and fruitless religion and say, “Be cast into the sea!” There may be one or more who need to do just that today. God may be speaking to your heart, inviting you this very moment to place your faith and trust in Jesus Christ who died for your sins and lives again to save you and forgive your past sins, and give you new life in the present, and eternal life in the future.

[1] James R. Edwards, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 339. Russell quotation cited there.

[2] Edwards, 339-340.

[3] Cited in Edwards, 341.

[4] Cited in Edwards, 339.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Tangled Up in Dylan (Revised)

This post is revised and edited.

The Sacred in the Secular is a blog about faith and arts that is the brain-child of Billy Belk, Josh Wells, and myself. I have penned five new posts there that I hope will produce discussion in the comments (***of that blog, not this one***) about the music of Bob Dylan. I am calling the series "Tangled Up in Dylan."

Some commentors have suggested that I have failed the task by not posting any analysis of my own in the posts. I have my own thoughts on the songs, and I will post them in the comments, but I am simply wanting to get the discussion started first. My point in calling this "Tangled Up in Dylan" is to demonstrate how people each take something different from each song, and few if any of those "interpretations" give any thought to what Dylan intended when he wrote that song. This is the same mistake many people make when it comes to interpreting the Bible. They give no thought to the author's intended meaning.

Antagonizers would be better to just click the little red "X" in the top right corner than to try to start a fight in the comment section.

Links are here:

Introduction, in which I explain why I am doing this.

Part 1: "It Ain't Me, Babe"

Part 2: "Shelter from the Storm"

Part 3: "Property of Jesus"

Part 4: "Cry a While"

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Worshiping Jesus: Mark 11:1-10

Recently I was talking with another Christian about the church he attends. I asked him, “Tell me about your church’s worship service.” He said, “Oh, we usually worship for about 30 minutes, and then we have prayer and preaching.” Now, immediately I understood what he meant by that. You probably do too. He is equating worship with music. To him, when the last note of music fades into silence, worship has ended, and something else involving preaching and prayer begins. He is not alone. The music employed in worship has become a profitable industry by record sales, the cult of personality, and the machine of marketing so that music has become the most immediate association in our minds when we say the word “worship.” I don’t have to tell you how divisive the issue of music in worship has been over the last few decades, for all of us know of many churches who have experienced rifts and splits over the style of music used in church worship services. We have so emphasized music in church today that many will say, “I cannot worship without music,” or “I cannot worship without certain types of music.” While we would admit quickly that music is a biblical element of worship, we should also recognize that when we limit our worship to the moments when music is available or suitable to our tastes, we have placed music in a dangerous place of prominence. The simple fact is that the Lord Jesus Christ is worthy of our perpetual worship, when music is playing and when it is not, and when I like the song being played and when I don’t. And if I let the presence or absence of music, or the style of music affect my worship, I am in danger of making an idol out of music. Worship is about God, and it is about God’s revelation of Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. If we make it about something else, or confine it to something else, we have put Christ in second place and elevated whatever other element of worship we value so highly to a place of dangerous preeminence.

Worship is not an event to which we come. It is an action we render unto a God who is infinitely worthy to receive it. It is rendered in response to the revelation of His glorious attributes and His saving power. When we limit worship to an event or to a certain element, we have ceased to worship Him in the way in which He deserves. In our text today, we find the most explicit public demonstration of worship given to Jesus thus far in the Gospel of Mark. It is spontaneous and exuberant. And we know that the Lord Jesus received this worship gladly, for in Luke’s Gospel we read that the Pharisees demanded that Jesus silence the praises of these people, and He refused to do so.

The traditional timeline associated with this passage places this event on the Sunday before Passover, the Sunday before the crucifixion. That being understood, we should note that fully one-third of Mark’s gospel is devoted to the final week of the earthy life and ministry of Jesus. This signals to use the importance of this final week in understanding His mission and purpose. He had come to establish the Kingdom of God under the New Covenant, which would be sealed in His blood, shed for us on the cross. And as He enters Jerusalem on the beginning of this final week, the people expressed their worship of Him in various ways. So as we look at our text today, we will see several ways in which we may express our worship to the Lord Jesus.

I. We may express our worship to Jesus in our obedient service to Him (vv1-6a)

It would be appropriate to say that worship is an expression of our love for Christ. And we must remember that Jesus said in John 14:15, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” In Luke 6:46, He said, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” So it seems that in Jesus’ eyes, our obedience is an important element of our worship.

In the first three verses of our text, we see that Jesus gives very specific instructions to two unnamed disciples. They are to go into a specific village, and they will find a colt (a very specific colt in a very specific location), and they must untie it and bring it back to Jesus. And He tells them that if anyone questions what they are doing, they must give a very specific answer: “Say, ‘The Lord has need of it.” Now, in the NASB, the quotation marks end there, but it is likely that they should be placed after the next phrase, as the NIV has it. They are to say, “The Lord has need of it and immediately He (that is, the Lord, so the “H” in “He” should be capitalized) will send it back here.” Notice, by the way, how Jesus speaks of Himself as “the Lord,” and instructs the disciples to refer to Him in that way, indicating His deity and His worthiness of worship. But we do not claim He is divine simply because He said so. He demonstrates His deity in His attributes. One of them is clearly seen here: His omniscience. He knows where in the village a specific colt is tied, and He knows specifically what will be said to the disciples when they go to retrieve it. Only God has this kind of perfect foreknowledge, and Jesus demonstrates Himself to be God in the flesh by the exercise of His divine omniscience.

Now, in a way not typically seen before in the disciples, notice in the next three verses that they obey Him with exact precision. He said, “Go into the village opposite you,” and we read in verse 4, “They went away.” He said, “immediately as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there on which no one yet has ever sat,” and we read in verse 4 that they “found a colt tied at the door outside in the street.” He said, “untie it and bring it here.” And in verse 4 we read that they untied it.” Jesus said, “If anyone says to you ‘Why are you doing this?’ you say, ‘The Lord has need of it and immediately He will send it back here.’” And in verse 5, we see that the question was asked just as the Lord foretold, and in verse 6, “They spoke to them just as Jesus had told them.” Every detail in the command was carried out in obedient service by the disciples.

Now, had Jesus sent you or me, we might be tempted to take a shortcut. We might find some colt tied up somewhere else and said, “Oh, this one will do. A colt is a colt, and He will never know the difference.” Ah, but He would know the difference. This was a very special animal which had been set apart for a very special purpose. The Law of Moses established a principle that any animal devoted to a sacred purpose must be one that had never been put to ordinary use. This colt had never been sat upon before. And it was not going to be used simply as a means of transportation. It was being used as a means of fulfilling prophecy. In Genesis 49:8-12, a promise is spoken over Judah likening him to a lion and proclaiming that he shall bear the scepter, the rod of the ruler, and foretelling that one would come forth from him who would “tie His foal to the vine and His donkey’s colt to the choice vine; He washes His garments in wine and His robes in the blood of grapes.” This speaks of the Messiah coming to reign, and associates His coming with a colt. In Zechariah 9:9, we also read, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, humble and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Here in this prophecy we see the elements which unfold in our text of Mark’s Gospel: His entry into the city; the colt on which He rides; and the rejoicing of the people. So the event we read about here in Mark 11 is not a happenstance occurrence, but one that had been foreordained from the earliest pages of the Old Testament and reiterated in its closing pages. Therefore, the disciples must fully obey the Lord’s instructions, that all things be carried out on this momentous occasion just as the Lord had promised.

Just as these disciples demonstrated their reverence for the Lord in their obedient service, so must we. We must not think that the Lord is only concerned with our emotions which are stirred at 11:00 on Sunday morning. He is concerned with our daily obedience to His commands found in His Word! All of our dressing up and singing and smiling in the sanctuary is meaningless if it is not joined together with a regular expression of worship through obedient service to Him. This is one of the ways we worship the Lord Jesus.

Secondly, we see further in the passage …

II. We may express our worship to Jesus in our sacrificial giving (vv6b-8)

We see in the end of verse 6 that once the overseers of the colt knew that it was the Lord who needed it, they gave permission for the colt to be taken. This was a costly gift. Livestock was a precious commodity in those days, and still is. Though they had been promised that the Lord would return it, they ultimately had to trust His disciples were telling the truth and that indeed it would return. But ultimately, there came the moment of release when they said, “If the Lord can use what I have, then I will give it to Him.”

And they were not alone. We see in v7 that the disciples gave up their coats for Jesus to use as a saddle as He mounted the colt. And then we see in v8 that others began to spread their coats in the road. This was a symbolic gesture on their part, indicating the arrival of a king. When Jehu came to power in 2 Kings 9, we read that the people “hurried and each man took his garment and placed it under him on the bare steps, and blew the trumpet, saying, ‘Jehu is king!’” It was their way of saying, “Let not his feet touch the dirty ground.” And there is a practical element as well, for the coats would cover up the stones and holes that might cause the animal to stumble, and softened the surface so that it could walk in comfort. Their coats may become soiled, torn, and never be able to be worn again, but it was worth the sacrifice, for they gave their coats as a gift of worship to the Lord. Those who had no coats to give pulled the branches from the palms and spread them on the road.

We see that everyone was able to give something. Only one person could give a colt. Only a few could give coats to be saddles. Many could give coats to spread on the road, and many more could spread branches out before Him. What matters is not the monetary value of the gift, but the devotion expressed in giving these gifts to the Lord.

William Hendriksen writes, “Whether it was a place of lodging, a colt, a room in which to celebrate the Passover, or even at last a tomb, whatever it was that He needed, if they had it these friends were ready to provide it. That one word, ‘The Lord needs it,’ was all that was required. Today, too, such a broad body of true followers of the Lord and supporters of his causes is urgently needed.”[1] Ellen Gates writes in a poem called Your Mission:

“If you cannot sail on the ocean, sail among the swiftest fleet,

rocking on the highest billows, laughing at the storms you meet,

You can stand among the sailors, anchored still within the bay

You can lend a hand to help them as they launch their boats away.”[2]

All of us have something we can give to the Lord as an act of worship. The Lord knows what we give, and He knows what we are able to give. If we can only give branches, He does not expect a colt from us. But if we give Him branches when we could give Him a colt, we are not rendering to Him the sacrificial worship He deserves. Sacrificial giving, in addition to obedient service, is an important way of worshiping the Lord Jesus that we must not neglect.

Finally, as we come to verse 9, we see …

III. We may express our worship to Jesus in our vocal praise (vv9-10)

As Jesus entered the city, the shouts of those ahead of Him and those coming behind went up in praise to the King who had come to save them. “Hosanna,” they shouted. This is a word that many of us have read in Scripture before, but with which some of us may be unfamiliar. What does it mean? It is a transliteration of a Hebrew word that means either, “Save, I pray,” or “Save now!” It expresses a prayer and praise to the Messiah as if to say, “O Lord, save us now, deliver us because of Your mercy and grace.” Then the closing phrase, “Hosanna in the highest!” is this same praise and prayer expressed to Him who dwells in the highest place, recognizing Christ as the incarnation of God. How did this crowd of people reach this conclusion about Jesus? Luke 19:37 says that they were praising God for all the miracles which they had seen. Which miracles had they seen? Well, we know from John’s gospel that immediately prior to this, when Jesus was at Bethany, He had raised Lazarus from the dead. This had convinced them that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah who had come to save them.

With this understanding, they began to praise Him with the words of Psalm 118. That Psalm is distinctly Messianic. It speaks of the stone that the builders rejected becoming the chief corner stone, an idea that parallels the wonderful prophecy of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. And in verses 25-26 of that Psalm, praise for the Messiah goes up: “O LORD, do save [that’s our Hebrew word “Hosanna”], we beseech You; O LORD, we beseech You, do send prosperity! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD!” So with words of Scripture, the people voice their praise for the Messiah Jesus as He enters Jerusalem to become the atoning sacrifice for the sins of man, and to shed the blood of the new covenant which will inaugurate the Kingdom of God, the everlasting Kingdom that had been promised to David concerning his descendant. So they say, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David.” This praise demonstrates their awareness of Jesus’ mission: He has come in the name of the Lord, and He has come to establish the long-awaited Kingdom promised so long ago to David. It is likely that these words were spoken or sung in what is called antiphony, with one group saying, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” and another group responding with, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest.”

I think this expression of vocal praise demonstrates significant insight into the Word of God on the people’s behalf. They understood the significance of the miracles they saw performed. They understood the significance of Jesus coming into the city from the Mount of Olives, that location where the prophets foresaw the glory of God resting, and which they associated with Messiah’s arrival. They understood the significance of Him coming mounted on a colt. And their biblical understanding informed the praise that they rendered unto Him.

This praise was exuberant and enthusiastic, for the Scriptures say that they were shouting! But, we must understand that it was not the style but the substance of this worship which was most appropriate. We see in this vocal expression of praise that worship should be voiced to Christ in recognition of who He is and what He has accomplished for us. It should be informed by the Scriptures in both its content, its outlook, and its vocabulary. We must ask ourselves concerning the songs we sing and the words we employ in our worship: Are we expressing biblical truth concerning the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ? He is the object of our worship and must be the subject of our praise. And this means that we must know the Scriptures well enough to evaluate our worship on these grounds.

We see here in this passage that in the most spontaneous and widespread public act of worship to the Lord Jesus that had been given so far, much more was involved than just singing jubilant songs. There were acts of obedient service, offerings of sacrificial gifts, and expressions of vocal praise. And these things must characterize our worship as well – not only the worship we bring to God through Christ on Sunday mornings, but the worship that flows from our daily lives; the worship He deserves. He is worthy of more than one hour of song in our time-stretched weeks. He is worthy of our devoted service, giving, and praising every moment of every day, and we must render it to Him.

But there is also a word of severe warning underlying this passage, and we must not draw the message to a close without voicing it. Though we see a great example of true worship here, we must remember that this crowd of worshipers quickly disappeared within a matter of a very short time. This was Sunday. By Thursday, many who were in this crowd would abandon their cries of “Hosanna,” and take up the cry of “Crucify Him!” Though they had praised Him publicly with great enthusiasm, many in this number had hearts which were far from Him. It is one thing to show up and worship on Sunday, but where will be on Thursday? What will we say when we aren’t gathered together like this? Will we continue to speak His praise, continue to be a witness to His glorious attributes and His powerful works? Or do we comfortably put worship aside as we take off our Sunday dress?

There may be some in our midst today who have come to church for any number of reasons, and joined in the singing and blended right in with those who have come to worship together with God’s people in this place. But deep down, that individual knows that his or heart is far from God, and the religious performance they render today is in no way a reflection of the true condition of his or her life. Let me state the matter plainly: Is Jesus Christ Lord of your life? Do you know His saving power? Have you come to Him in faith believing that He died for your sins and is risen from the dead? If not, then you remain lost in your sins, regardless of any service you render, any offering you give, or any words you say. But you do not have to remain that way. Jesus Christ offers you the promise of eternal life and a personal relationship with God if you will turn from sin and come to Him today. Perhaps some need to make just such a decision in this very moment.

And then others perhaps recognize from the text today that our ideas about worship have been mistaken. We have focused on the emotional excitement of various forms of worship, or the performance of certain duties, and neglected the weightier matters of obedience, giving, and true praise. Perhaps in this moment, someone may need to repent of false notions of worship and return to genuinely living daily in adoration and devotion to Christ. Let your worship be evident by your obedient service to Him, your sacrificial giving to Him, and your vocal and biblical praise. He is worthy of all this and more.

[1] Hendriksen, 436.

[2] Cited Ibid.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Faith That Saves: Mark 10:46-52

Today, perhaps more than at any time in recent history, it is acceptable and even popular to speak of being a person of faith. Whereas once it was considered to be improper to speak publicly about faith or politics, today these conversations are readily engaged in the public square, with politicians even being willing to speak about their own faith. The last several national elections in America have focused on candidate’s personal faith and their views on the issues important to communities of faith. Though statistics indicate that church involvement and attendance may be at an all-time low, it seems that people’s interest in matters of faith are at an all-time high.

What does it mean to have faith? We understand that the word means “trust,” “allegiance,” “adherence,” or “belief.” But those are very vague synonyms for faith. People understand the word “faith” in different ways. To some, faith means “blind faith”, where a person believes something they have no grounds to believe. To others, having faith is the equivalent of superstition, whereby one attributes mystical or magical powers to an object. There is a kind of faith in science where one bases claims on probability observed in research. There is a historical belief that some call faith, where they believe that an event in history has occurred. Then there is the intellectual assent where one agrees with certain statements. To some, faith is no more than merely positive thinking. Folks are admonished to be optimistic with the words, “You must have faith!” Then there is faith in faith, where a person says, “I have faith,” but there is no certain object of their faith. It is just a faith in his or her own faith. All of these things have been called “faith” by some. But in our passage today, we meet a man with a different kind of faith.

Jesus says to the blind beggar named Bartimaeus in verse 52, “Your faith has made you well.” If you use the KJV, you will see the words, “thy faith hath made thee whole.” The NIV reads, “Your faith has healed you.” All of these are efforts to render in English the Greek word, sesoken, a form of the verb sozo. This word means “to save.” This word is used 16 times in the healing stories of the gospels, at least 6 of those times with Jesus saying, “Your faith has saved you.” In those instances, salvation comes to that person from Jesus because of their faith, and it affects their entire being, both physically and spiritually. What kind of faith is this? It is saving faith. Every person in the world exercises some kind of faith or another, but only one kind of faith saves. So we want to ask, “What is saving faith?” And in our text today we see three attributes of saving faith.

I. Saving Faith Cries Out to Jesus (vv46-48)

Bartimaeus sat on the side of the road, unable to see what was taking place around him, but certainly feeling the brushes of people as they passed by him and hearing the commotion that was going on. Luke’s Gospel tells us that when Bartimaeus heard the crowd going by, “he began to inquire what this was. They told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by.” There were many Jewish men named Jesus in that day, but only one was known far and wide as Jesus of Nazareth. Now, Mark tells us that when he heard that it was Jesus the Nazarene, he began to cry out. Apparently, Bartimaeus had heard of Jesus: perhaps he had heard of the miracles of healing Jesus had performed, or heard of some of the wonderful truths He had taught. Whatever he had heard about Jesus, Bartimaeus had come to the conclusion that Jesus could help him, so he cried out. Look at what the text says to us about how Bartimaeus cried out to Jesus:

A. Saving Faith Cries Out to Jesus In Recognition of Who He Is

Saving faith is not faith in faith. It is not merely positive thinking. Saving faith has an object. This faith is placed in a particular person, namely in the Lord Jesus Christ. You notice that Bartimaeus doesn’t cry out, “Hey, you there.” He calls on the Lord by name: “Jesus.” But also in order to show the Lord that he understands that Jesus is not just another passer by, Bartimaeus calls Him “Son of David.” While this is not the only time Jesus was ever called “Son of David,” it is the only time Mark records anyone calling Him by that title. This probably has to do with the fact that Mark was writing for Gentiles, who would not be familiar with the significance of this title. Back in 2 Samuel 7, God had promised David, “When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you , and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” Ever since that day, pious Israelites had awaited a descendant of David to come as their Messiah. Bartimaeus recognizes that Jesus is this long-awaited Savior who has come to save His people, and cries out to Him as such.

But there is another title Bartimaeus uses for Jesus that further indicates that he knew whom He was crying out to in faith. In v51, he calls Jesus “Rabboni.” While Jesus is called “Rabbi” by many people on many occasions, only twice is He ever called “Rabboni.” Once is here, and the other is when Mary Magdalene sees the risen Jesus outside the tomb. Rabboni is a far more reverent term than Rabbi. In the ancient Jewish literature, this term is seldom used with reference to human beings, and practically never as a way of addressing another person. However, in the Jewish writings, “Rabboni” is frequently used as an address to God in prayer. That being so, it is not a stretch to say that Bartimaeus, by using this term, is expressing his recognition of the divine nature of Jesus. He knows that Jesus is not just one of many who had come and gone claiming to be the Messiah. He knows that He is not just a good man doing good thing, but that He is the God-man who came to do a God-thing. In the person of Jesus Christ, God became man, and saving faith recognizes Him as such and cries out to Him.

Saving faith cries out to Jesus in recognition of who He is. He is God-in-the-flesh, the long-awaited Messiah who had come to be the Savior of His people. Bartimaeus was blind, but this much he could see clearly with the eyes of faith. And so we would ask today, “Have you seen Jesus for who He is?” Have you recognized Him as God and as Savior, and cried out to Him with saving faith?

We also notice, as we consider how saving faith cries out to Jesus, that …

B. Saving Faith Cries Out to Jesus In Spite of Obstacles

As the Summer Olympics are approaching, all eyes will be on Beijing to see who will win gold in the various events. One of my favorite events to watch is the hurdles. It is really impressive to see someone who can not only run fast, but who can also run fast while jumping over obstacles. Like those hurdlers, sometimes when we exercise saving faith, we too must overcome obstacles. Sometimes they are internal and other times they are external. But when it comes to crying out to Jesus, there are hurdles to clear, and we see some of them as we look at Bartimaeus.

1. We must clear the hurdles of our condition (46-47)

Some folks seem to have it all going for them, while others seem to have everything in life working against them. Bartimaeus represents for us a person in the extreme position of neediness. He is blind. We don’t know if he was born that way, or if it happened to him sometime during his life. He is totally dependent on others to tell him what’s going on around him and whether or not he is in harm’s way. Not only is he blind, but he is a beggar. Perhaps because of his blindness, he is unable to work to earn a living, and must resort to asking for handouts from others. He is a blind beggar, and he is an outcast from society. You will notice that Jesus does not encounter Bartimaeus in Jericho, but rather as He is leaving the city, along the side of the road. He has not been given a place to beg in the city, but is forced outside the gates to plead for help from those coming and going. As another indication of his lowly state, notice his name, Bartimaeus. Mark gives us a literal translation of his name: “The Son of Timaeus.” While this is the only name ever given in the healing stories of the Gospels, it is not a personal name, but rather just a family name. What this man’s real name is unknown. He isn’t important enough to the world around him to bear a name. He’s just the son of Timaeus.

We also notice that in addition to being a nameless, blind, begging outcast, he recognizes something else about his condition. As he cries out to Jesus, he says, “Have mercy on me!” Mercy is a word that means the withholding of something someone deserves. It is a way of saying, “Don’t give me what I deserve. Hold back from me what I deserve.” And in his plea for mercy before the Lord Jesus, Bartimaeus reveals that he understands himself to be a sinner. He understands that nothing in himself can commend him to Jesus. He is not like the rich young ruler who came boasting of all the good deeds he had done. He is willing to recognize himself as an undeserving sinner in need of the mercy of the Lord.

All of these conditions stand between him and Jesus. And in order to exercise saving faith, he must overcome them. He must not say, “Oh, why would Jesus care about me. I’m just a blind, begging, nameless, outcast sinner.” Rather, he must say, “My only hope for my condition is Jesus, and in spite of all that is working against me in my life, I must cry out to Him!” And so he does.

Like Bartimaeus, each of us must recognize our own condition as well. We may think that we are in a much better state than Bartimaeus, but spiritually, our condition is no better. Like him, we are blind, unable to see spiritual truth unless it is revealed to us. Like him, we are beggars, with nothing spiritually to our name. We are outcasts, separated from the presence of God because of our sins, and in need of His divine mercy. You can ignore these things, deny them, or make excuses for them, and say you have some kind of faith. But unless you see yourself as a hopeless sinner in need of God’s mercy exhibited in the person of Jesus Christ, you do not have saving faith. To declare Christ as Savior means to recognize yourself as one who needs to be saved. Saving faith will overcome these hurdles of our condition and cry out to Jesus for His mercy.

But notice it is not only the internal hurdles of our condition that must be cleared. There are external hurdles as well…

2. We must clear the hurdles of our critics (v48)

No sooner than Bartimaeus cried out to Jesus, but people started trying to keep him quiet. We aren’t told why they wanted him to pipe down, but some suggestions have been offered by the commentators: a. They were in a hurry to get to Jerusalem and didn’t want Jesus to be delayed dealing with this beggar; b. all this crying out and yelling was undignified and distracting to the sacred procession; c. the people in the crowds did not believe Jesus was who Bartimaeus claimed him to be; d. they did not want to create an uprising that would threaten the religious status quo. Whatever their reasons, they were uncomfortable with this blind beggar crying out to Jesus in their midst. And like Bartimaeus, we will find that when we begin reaching out to Jesus, others will try to divert us from placing our faith in Him. Family members, friends, even total strangers will give us countless reasons why it’s just not the thing for us to do. But Bartimaeus did not let his critics win the day. Perhaps the easy thing for a blind beggar to do was to abide with the crowd’s demands, but he didn’t. The Bible says that “he kept crying out all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’” And like him, we must not let the critics who would divert us from Jesus silence our cries for mercy as we reach out to Him with saving faith. Saving faith endures opposition and clears the high-hurdles of our own condition and the criticisms of others.

So we see here that saving faith is faith that cries out to Jesus in recognition of who He is and in spite of obstacles that would prevent us from crying out to Him. But secondly, we notice …

II. Saving Faith Comes to Jesus (vv49-51)

It isn’t content to just call out to Jesus from a distance. Saving faith begins to exercise itself in action. But notice three important things about how Bartimaeus comes to Jesus in saving faith.

A. Saving Faith Comes in Response to Christ’s Call (49)

In John 6:44, Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.” A few verses later in John 6:65, He says, “no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” And the Bible says there that because Jesus said these things, “many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.” There is something offensive to our human nature about these words. But offensive does not mean “not true.” Whether or not we want to admit it, we are incapable of coming to Christ until God begins to do a work in our heart to draw us to Him. We see here that Bartimaeus does not come to Jesus until Jesus calls him. Jesus tells the disciples to call him, and they say, “Take courage, stand up! He is calling for you.” And in response to Christ’s call, Bartimaeus comes. He cannot come before, and he cannot come until Christ calls him. Saving faith is always exercised in response to God’s initiative in dealing with our hearts. As Christ calls out to us, His Spirit begins to work in our hearts to bring us into the new life. We do not cause God to move toward us by our reaching out to Him. Rather it is His reaching out to us, as it were “calling us to come to Him”, which prompts our response of saving faith. We must always be sure that in our discussion of salvation, we keep God’s initiative primary, and see our exercise of faith as a reaction to His first action.

B. Saving Faith Comes with Eagerness to Christ (50)

Remember that Mark is writing this Gospel based on information he learned from Peter. Peter was there, he saw this all taking place, and the response of this man to Christ’s call obviously made an impression on his mind, as he recalls with vividness that Bartimaeus threw aside his cloak, jumped up, and came to Jesus. The cloak which he was wearing was a long flowing garment that could entangle the feet and cause one to trip, especially one who was blind. Not wanting to be encumbered in any way, Bartimaeus sheds the cloak and jumped to his feet in order to come quickly to Jesus.

In 1997, I had the opportunity to go to Malindi, Kenya on a mission trip. A friend of mine who had been there before told me, “I want you to find a pastor named Jonathan and go witness to his father.” It took a little work, but I finally found Jonathan and he took me to see his dad. I sat down with him, and with his son interpreting for me, I shared the gospel of Jesus Christ with him. As I talked, the old man nodded his head. I asked if he understood, and he said, “Yes.” I said, “Do you believe these things are true?” He said, “Yes.” Finally I said, “Sir, would you like to put your faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?” He said, “No, I just don’t think I am ready.” We spent another hour going back through all of it, and he still said, “No, I’m just not ready.” I was so discouraged and disappointed. But the next day, we went back out into the bush and stumbled upon a woman drawing water from a well, and as I shared Christ with her, she began to weep, and then to jump up and down as she asked Jesus to save her. She was eager.

Saving faith recognizes the opportunity that has been extended and doesn’t put off responding, but comes to Jesus with quickness and eagerness as we see Bartimaeus doing here.

C. Saving Faith Comes to Jesus with Expectation (51)

When Bartimaeus came to Him, Jesus asked him the same question He had asked James and John back in v36: “What do you want Me to do for you?” Whereas James and John had asked for extraordinary glory, Bartimaeus asks for ordinary health. “Rabboni, I want to gain my sight.” But let’s not underestimate the great expectation of these words. In one sense, it is much easier to ask Jesus for glory in the kingdom than to ask him to open blinded eyes, for the response to this request will be immediately evident. If Jesus was a fraud, He could make pie-in-the-sky promises and no one would ever know if they were true or false. But here was a real test. If He could open blinded eyes, everyone would see His power at work. And Bartimaeus believes that Jesus can really do this. What doctors, medicines, and other promises of relief had failed to do for him, he believed Jesus could do, and he expressed his expectation to the Lord.

When we come to Jesus, we must come believing that He can meet our life’s greatest need. Our greatest need is not to be able to see, or to be financially prosperous. Our greatest need is to be saved from sin. Jesus has declared already that salvation is impossible with men, but only possible with God. We must believe He is able to save us, and come in expectation that He will. Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” We must believe that He will meet our greatest need as only He can as we come to Him.

So, we have seen that saving faith cries out to Jesus and comes to Jesus. Now finally, we will see …

III. Saving Faith Commits to Jesus (52)

What a stark contrast we have here between blind Bartimaeus and the rich young ruler. To the rich young ruler, Jesus said to “Follow Me,” and instead the man went away grieving. To Bartimaeus, Jesus says, “Go,” and Bartimaeus instead “began following Him on the road.” Though Jesus has not required it of him, Bartimaeus makes the ultimate step of faith, joining the ranks of those who followed Him wherever he went. His life has been transformed. No longer will he be a blind beggar on the side of the road; now he is a saved man following Jesus on the road.

“Following Jesus” is the most descriptive term we can use to denote the Christian life of a disciple. One cannot both follow Jesus and remain where they are. They must go where He is leading, and as they travel life’s road with Jesus, they will be transformed more and more into His likeness. One can believe that Jesus lived and died, and even that he rose again, and stay sitting on the side of the road. One can believe any number of things about Jesus, God, the Bible, the Church, the doctrines of Christianity, and remain outside Jericho’s gates. But when one exercises saving faith, he or she begins to follow Christ, wherever the road of life may lead. In this case, the road leads to Jerusalem, where Jesus will go to the cross and die. But hardship on the road does not cause a true follower of Christ to turn back. Saving faith commits to Jesus and perseveres come what may. As James Edwards writes, “Faith that does not lead to discipleship is not saving faith. Whoever asks of Jesus must be willing to follow Jesus … even on the uphill road to the cross.”

Yes, it is true, that every human being will exercise some kind of faith. But Jesus said to Bartimaeus, “Your faith has saved you.” There is a faith that saves. It cries out to Jesus in recognition of who He is, and in spite of obstacles. It comes to Jesus in an eager and expectant response to His call. And it commits to following Jesus on the path of Christian discipleship. And so the question we must ask of ourselves is, “Would Jesus say to me, ‘Your faith has saved you?” Have you merely believed on Him in a historical or intellectual way, in a way that is based on probabilities, or in a superstitious way? Is your faith just a gloss over empty positive thinking? Or have you, like Bartimaeus, seen Christ for who He truly is and cried out to Him, and come to Him, and committed to Him? If you have not, then perhaps this day you will throw aside the encumbrances, overcome the obstacles, and jump to your feet and come to Him believing that He can save you from your sins. He died on the cross for you so that your sins could be punished in Him, and that in Him you can have eternal life. The Bible says if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. Call upon Him in faith today, and hear Him say to you “Your faith has saved you.”

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

What's Really On the New "Resurrection" Stone?

There is some buzz going on about a stone unearthed about ten years ago that some are calling "Gabriel's Revelation". This stone contains a Hebrew inscription which has been interpreted by Israel Knohl of Hebrew University in Jerusalem to challenge the uniqueness of the Christian narratives of Jesus' resurrection. If Knohl is correct in his interpretation of the scroll, then we have a piece of evidence showing that another person claiming to be Messiah died and rose again on the third day in the years just before Jesus was born. This would mean that the disciples of Jesus borrowed from this story and just changed a few names and details to suit their views concerning the crucified Jesus. But, while the media runs swiftly with this information, few are stopping to ask, "Is this what the inscription really reads?" or "Is Knohl correct in his interpretation of the inscription?"

Biblical Archaeology Review provides links to Word Documents containing the text of the actual Hebrew inscription and a literal English translation. What one will discover as he or she looks at what the stone actually says is that there's a lot of this: "..." Those dots indicate that the stone is either damaged or illegible in those areas, meaning that those claiming to have the interpretations nailed down have done much conjuring with the text and inserting words. But how do we know they inserted the right words? Could it be that they inserted the words that they needed to have there to prove their own view?

Craig Blomberg notes, "Look at lines 78-85, which must be what Israel Knohl is referring to. Notice what's actually in the text vs. what he has to supply. The text itself, reads merely :

' You(?) will save them, . . . [. . .]. . .from before You, the three si[gn]s(?), three . . . [. . . . ] In three days. . ., I, Gabri'el . . . [?}, the Prince of Princes, . . ., harrow holes (?) . . .[. . . ]. . .to/for . . .[. . .]. . .and the. . .to me(?), out of three-the small one, whom(?) I took, I, Gabri'el. YHWH of Hosts, the Lord of(?)[Israel. . .]. . .[. . . .] Then you will stand. . .[. . .]. . . ' "

From this, Knohl interprets that this is an account of a messiah who died and rose again in three days. With Blomberg, I ask, "Does anybody else see all that in the actual text? That's much more than 'reconstruction' and 'deduction;' that's plain just making things up and adding them in. Or am I missing something?"

Monday, July 07, 2008

Self-Sacrificing or Self-Serving: Mark 10:32-45

Audio available here.

Three times, in three consecutive chapters of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus foretells His disciples what the future holds for Him. We call these statements, “Passion Predictions,” because in each one He announces ahead of time the sufferings He will endure in Jerusalem. The word Passion comes from a Latin word meaning “to suffer.” In Mark 8:31, He began to teach them: “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” In Mark 9:31, He was teaching His disciples and telling 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.” And here in Mark 10:32, we have the most detailed announcement of what is to come: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles. They will mock Him and spit on Him, and scourge Him and kill Him, and three days later He will rise again.”

While this statement about His forthcoming suffering is more detailed than those before it, there are several similarities. You will notice that in all three He calls Himself, “Son of Man.” Also in all three He is very specific about the fact that He will be killed and He will rise again. Another similarity is that in all three cases, the disciples respond to these statements about His impending suffering and death by sticking their feet in their mouths. After the first Passion prediction in Mark 8:31, Peter had the gumption to rebuke the Lord. After the second Passion prediction in Chapter 9, we read that the disciples erupted into an argument amongst themselves about which of them was the greatest. And here in Chapter 10, following the third Passion prediction, James and John demonstrate the same cerebral density yet again.

They come to Jesus and make a very deceptive request: “We want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.” Kind of like that friend who says, “Will you do me a favor?” You say, “Sure!” And then they tell you what the favor is, and you think, “Man, why did I say ‘Sure’?” Take a tip from Jesus – always find out what the favor is first. Jesus didn’t say, “OK” to their request for a blank check of divine favor. Rather, He asked them to specify what they wanted. And what they wanted was this: "Grant that we may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left, in Your glory." In the teaching that follows this request, Jesus gives the disciples a lesson on greatness. We see Jesus contrasting the way the world sees greatness and the way greatness is evaluated in the Kingdom. One is a way of self-sacrificing, the other a way of self-serving. Jesus demonstrates the former, and James and John the latter.

I. The Self-Sacrificing Son of Man

As they walked toward Jerusalem, Jesus knew exactly what awaited Him there. In fact, we may say that even though He had told the twelve before, He was the only one who really knew what was going to happen. In Mark 9:32, we read that “they did not understand this statement, and they were afraid to ask.” It wasn’t that Jesus had been speaking cryptically of His suffering, death, and resurrection. We were told in Mark 8:32 that He had been speaking plainly to them about these things. Isn’t it amazing to see them journeying toward the fulfillment of these things, to see Jesus, the only One who truly knew what was going to happen, leading the way? In Isaiah 50:5-7, speaking of the Messianic Servant who was to come, the voice of the Messiah says, “I was not disobedient, nor did I turn back. I gave my back to those who strike Me And My cheeks to those who pluck out the beard; I did not cover My face from humiliation and spitting. 7 For the Lord GOD helps Me, Therefore, I am not disgraced; Therefore, I have set My face like flint, And I know that I will not be ashamed.” That phrase “set My face like flint,” is seen demonstrated here in the picture of Jesus leading the march into Jerusalem. Luke tells us in Luke 9:51, “He was determined to go to Jerusalem.” Knowing what awaited Him there, with determination and face set like flint to obey the Father’s purpose for His life, Jesus led the processional. In ancient days, a King might lead a band of followers into a great city in order to conquer it. Many hoped that is what Jesus would do. But instead, He marches on in the front of this parade, on His way to Jerusalem where He knows He will die. It was a march to self-sacrifice. And the determination in His eyes caused the disciples to be amazed, and the others who followed along to be afraid. And once again, He calls the twelve aside to explain to them what will occur.

A. Jesus Declared His Self-Sacrifice (33-34)

As in all the Passion Predictions, Jesus refers to Himself as “Son of Man.” You may recall that we have discussed this title on several occasions previously and noted 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. It is a specific reference to the prophecy found in the seventh chapter of Daniel, beginning at verse 13, where Daniel writes of seeing one“like a Son of Man … 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.” By using this phrase “Son of Man,” Jesus points to a specific definition of 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. But, though these glorious things could be said of Him, He knew that He would not be recognized or treated as such in Jerusalem. He declared with great detail the things to come.

With a series of seven verbs, Jesus foretells the tragic events that will come His way, beginning with being delivered to the chief priests and scribes. This of course is a veiled reference to His betrayal at the hands of Judas Iscariot and His subsequent arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. The chief priests and the scribes is a reference to the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of Israel, who would initially hear the charges against Him. They would hear the charges of blasphemy leveled against Jesus, because He had claimed to be God, and they would condemn Him to the legal penalty of such extreme blasphemy: death. But the Roman authorities had not given the Jewish leaders the right to execute their own criminals, therefore, the Sanhedrin handed Him over to the Gentiles, that is the Roman authorities in Jerusalem. At their hands, Jesus would be mocked, spit upon, and scourged. Scourging refers to the brutal act of whipping an individual with what was called “the cat of nine tails”: a whip with nine strips of leather, each one embedded with pieces of rock, metal and glass. This treatment was intended to inflict extreme pain, ripping the flesh from the body of the victim. And then after the scourging, He would be taken to the place of crucifixion where the Romans would carry out the sentence the Jewish leaders had placed upon Him. In one evening, Jesus was bounced through five different hearings before various Jewish and Gentile authorities before finally being put to death the next morning. But just as He knew that this treatment was to come, He also knew it would not be the end. After being delivered over to the Sanhedrin to be condemned, and handed over to the Romans to be crucified, in death He was handed over to His Father, where the brutal treatment would be swallowed up in glorious triumph: “Three days later He will rise again.” In the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, God vindicated the Messiah, and validated every claim He had made.

Jesus knew the suffering that was coming His way in Jerusalem, and He declared it to the disciples. But He did more than declare His self-sacrifice …

B. Jesus Demonstrated His Self-Sacrifice (45)

It was for this reason that Christ had been born. Self-Sacrifice was not something that He would taste only in death. His entire earthly life and ministry was one of self-sacrifice. We might say that it was His divinely-ordained mission.

1. The Self-Sacrifice of His Life

“The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.” Jesus’ life is not one of continual receiving from others, but of endless giving for the sake of others. Because of His divine nature, He was worthy to receive worship and praise and service from all humanity, but Jesus never occupied an earthly throne during the 33 years of His life on earth. His was not a posture of authority, but of humility. As Paul put it in Philippians 2:6-7, 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.” He left the comforts and confines of heavenly glory to come into this world where He was born in poverty and lived in servitude. Everything He taught, every miracle He wrought, was filled with conviction and compassion for humanity’s sake. He said in John 10:10, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jesus did not gauge His earthly success by the number of His servants. After all, He only had twelve disciples who stuck it out with Him, and one of them was a bad apple, and all of them forsook Him at His time of greatest need. If we judged His greatness by the number of His servants, we would have to consider Jesus the epitome of failure. But Jesus gauged His mission by His own service to others. It is no understatement to say that serving others is what He lived for. He said it Himself: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” Self-sacrifice was His way of life. But it was also His way of death.

2. The Self-Sacrifice of His Death

The Son of Man came, Jesus said, “To give His life a ransom for many.” In this statement Jesus makes it clear that His life was not taken from Him by others, but given by Him for others. In John 10, Jesus said, “No one has taken [My life] away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative.” He gave His life. But it was not the senseless death of a suicide or the tragic death of a martyr that Jesus suffered. Rather, He gave away His life in death for a purpose: to ransom many. The word ransom originally had to do with the price paid for the release of a prisoner or slave. Since the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden, every person has been in the bondage of sin. It is written in Psalm 49:7 that no man can by any means redeem his brother or give to God a ransom for him. Each of us has our own sins to deal with, we cannot therefore ransom another from sin’s grasp. But Christ, the sinless Savior, is able to lay His life down as a ransom for humanity. Seven hundred years earlier, the prophet Isaiah had spoken of the severity of the Messiah’s sufferings, saying that He would be pierced, crushed, chastened, and scourged. But the prophet was clear that we were the benefactors of His self-sacrificing death: He was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, chastened for our well-being, and scourged for our healing. The prophet said that the Lord caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him, and that He would render His life as a guilt-offering. In letter-perfect fulfillment of those prophecies, Jesus lived to serve others, and died to ransom them.

His life was given to ransom “many.” There has been much ink spilled over the difference here between “many” and “all.” Suffice to say, that His death was a sufficient payment to ransom all of humanity, but each individual must make a personal decision to receive the benefits of the ransom. Therefore, not all will be saved. But neither can it be said that only a few will be. There will be “many” ransomed by the self-sacrifice of the Son of Man.

Seeing the great self-sacrifice that the Son of Man will endure for the sake of the many, one can’t help seeing the stark contrast with …

II. The Self-Serving Sons of Thunder

James and John were brothers, sons of a fisherman named Zebedee. In Mark 3, we read that Jesus gave them the name Boanerges, which means “Sons of Thunder.” They are often seen as impetuous and fiery of temper. In Matthew 20, there is a parallel account of this event in which the mother of James and John are with them and it is she who is doing all the talking. The two accounts are not in contradiction with one another. It is apparent from both of them that the mother and her sons took this untimely opportunity to seek personal advancement from Jesus. But before we start criticizing all that is going on here, and there is plenty to criticize, let’s look at …

A. What they did right

First, we can see from their words that the Sons of Zebedee that they rightly understood something about Jesus. Though they may have misunderstood all that He had spoken about the suffering He was to endure, they did understand that He would eventually be glorified. Their faith in Christ as the Conquering King and Lord of Lords did not waver, in spite of His passion predictions. Also, we recognize that they understood Jesus was sovereign over the lives of His disciples. They sought greatness, and they understood that Jesus had something to do and say about it. Finally, they should be commended for their courage to undergo suffering with Him, as they say that they are able to endure the things are coming His way as well. Perhaps they overestimate their ability and their own commitment, but they do not let the promise of coming hardships dissuade them from their allegiance to the Lord. So they aren’t total scoundrels here. There are at least a few things commendable in their conversation with the Lord. But, our discussion of what they did right ends here, and we move on to consider …

B. What they did wrong

We can begin by noticing that …

1. They had the wrong desire (37)

Their desire was to their own glory and honor. It was common in the ancient world for the most important person to be at the center when seated or standing or walking, and then for the next in importance to be on the right side, and the third in importance to be on the left. It doesn’t seem to matter much to James or John which of them is second and which is third, so long as they are second and third. It seems that they have not yet put the argument to rest as to which of the disciples is the greatest, and so they come to Jesus asking Him to appoint them to positions of honor. Of course, they seek these glorious positions because of the authority that would be afforded them. If Jesus is to be the King of a new Kingdom, He will need chief princes to administrate for Him, and they want to be those men. In the positions of 2 and 3 in the Kingdom, everyone else will have to bow before them and do their bidding. Like Joseph in Egypt or Daniel in Babylon, they will be revered by all their kinsmen and served by all the Kingdom. Serving Jesus has taken on the aim of what is in it for them, and so long as they may receive their own glory by serving Him, they are willing. They have self-serving desires.

2. They had the wrong method (35)

In order to have their desires granted, they pull Jesus aside for a little power-play. They understand His sovereignty over the placement of His servants, so they try to pull a few strings to make things go their way. They are trying to trap Jesus into a promotion of entitlement by asking Him to “do for us whatever we ask.” If they can get Him to agree to this unnamed favor, then they know they have a blank check to cash in for whatever self-serving agenda they choose. After all, in the business world, it is as much who you know as what you know that gets you the promotions, so they think it must be so in the Kingdom of God as well. They resort to the kind of corporate ladder-climbing methods that work in the fallen world, not knowing that the Kingdom has a different mode of operation and different standards of advancement. They are self-serving in their methods.

3. They had the wrong sense of self-confidence (38-40)

Jesus responds to their request by saying, “You do not know what you are asking.” In order for Jesus to receive the crown of glory, He must first endure the crown of thorns. There will be suffering before there is glory. The Sons of Thunder want the glory without the pain. Jesus says, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

The drink a cup is often a biblical symbol of receiving something allotted to you by God. Sometimes, the reference is to joy and prosperity, such as in Psalm 23:5, “My cup runneth over.” More frequently, however, the cup represents judgment and wrath. For instance, in Isaiah 51:17, the prophet looks ahead to the generation of captives in Babylon, saying, “Rouse yourself! Rouse yourself! Arise, O Jerusalem, You who have drunk from the LORD'S hand the cup of His anger; The chalice of reeling you have drained to the dregs.” In Revelation 14, the Word of God declares that those who refuse to worship Christ and worship the antichrist instead will “drink of the wine of the wrath of God which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger.” In Numbers 5, instructions are given for dealing with a woman who has been charged with adultery. The priest is to write the charges and their consequences on a scroll and wash the writing, causing the ink to run into a cup of water. Then dust from the tabernacle floor is mixed into the cup as well. In order to prove her innocence, the woman is required to drink this cup. And the picture here is, “If you’re not telling the truth, here in the very presence of God (the tabernacle itself), you are drinking these curses into your own body.” The cup of God’s wrath is the cup of our sins against His glory. But Jesus is saying here that He will take this cup for us, this cup of God’s wrath, the cup of our curses. He will drink our sins into His holy body and absorb our sins into Himself. The baptism of which He speaks has a similar significance, indicating that He will be immersed into the sinful state of humanity as those sins are punished in His death on the cross. And He asks James and John, “Can you drink this cup and take this baptism?”

Here, the Sons of Thunder are mistaken in their self-confidence, for they say, “We can.” While their commitment is commendable, we must realize that they know not what they say. For Christ will not merely suffer and die. He will suffer and die as a ransom for many. This, James and John are incapable of doing. But their eager affirmation is intended to impress Jesus with their credentials for greatness, kind of like fudging on a résumé. Jesus knows better. He knows that when He is betrayed unto death, every one of His disciples will abandon Him. And He knows that James and John will indeed suffer. “The cup that I drink you shall drink; and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized.” They will suffer for His sake. James will become a martyr at the hands of Herod, as recorded in Acts 12. John will suffer imprisonment and exile for many years. But alas, this will not earn them the places of highest honor in the Kingdom, for Jesus says, “to sit on My right or on My left, this is not Mine to give; but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” The Father has already determined who will sit at those places, and though they are not named, we understand from this statement that we cannot impress God with our merits and accolades to such an extent that we will earn or deserve from Him any bestowal of divine favor. Whatever we receive from Him, whatever our place in the Kingdom will be owing to the mercy and grace of God and not our own efforts. James and John express great self-confidence, but ultimately it is a mask for their self-seeking efforts to secure glory for themselves. And we should point out that the rest of the disciples are probably no better than they are. They became indignant with James and John, and though the reason is not given, it is probably because they begrudge the fact that these brothers beat them to the punch of seeking their own glory with Jesus.

4. They had the wrong role-models (42-44)

The desires and methods of James and John were based more on what goes on in the corridors of secular power and politics than on the ways of Christ. Jesus unmasks this as He describes the power-brokers of the world around them. “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them.” Those who are powerful in the eyes of the world seize power and exercise it with authoritarian tyranny. They seek to demonstrate their greatness by iron-fisted dictatorship. They use fear as a tactic to reinforce their power over those under their control. In spite of all that Jesus has taught and modeled for them, this kind of self-seeking authority is deeply rooted in the hearts of man, even in the hearts of Christ’s men. They are following the wrong role-models, and their desire for glory and power is self-seeking, just like those of the world around them. To this, Jesus offers a corrective: “But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all.” With these words Jesus points to Himself as the ultimate role-model for greatness, He who, though worthy of all worship, adoration, and service, came not to be served, but to serve and give His life a ransom for many. Greatness in Christ’s Kingdom will not be evaluated based on the quantity of servants one can press into submission, but on the quality of servanthood they give to others. If they will make serving Christ by serving others the aim of their life, they will be seen as great in the eyes of God, and will find that first place of honor that eludes the self-seekers. But God is not easily duped. He is aware that there are many who will perform works of service for others with self-seeking motives underlying. God will regard the purity of heart and motive as much as the service itself, and the one who doesn’t seek his own glory, but seeks to glorify God by pouring out his or her life in the service of others will find that God will reward them with glory and honor that they never pursued.

By whose standard will we measure greatness in our own lives? Will we use the world’s standard which gauges success by the number of servants and the measure of power one can marshall? Or will we use the standard of Jesus, who views our greatness in terms of our service to Him and to one another? Will we be self-sacrificing like the Son of Man, or self-serving like the Sons of Thunder? Which role model will we follow? If we will follow Christ, we will find our lives being expended in the service of other people for His name’s sake, and we will find when the days of our lives are over that we have attained true greatness in His eyes. Perhaps there are some in our midst today who view their relationship with Christ in terms of the rewards it will gain them, and who serve in the church and community in order to be found important in the eyes of men. Christ bids us to lay aside our self-seeking agendas and join Him in laying down our lives for others, making the self-sacrifice of service to others our primary means of serving Him.

He came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. Every one of us comes to that place when we find that we are enslaved to sin and Satan, hopeless to deliver ourselves from bondage. But the ransom price for our sins has been paid by the blood of Christ on the cross. Peter says in 1 Peter 1:18-19, “you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.” He paid this price for you, to purchase you for Himself. Are you one of the many who has accepted this gift of His grace? The price has been paid to release you from sin’s shackles. Your only response is to turn from sin and look to Christ by faith to save you. He came to serve you. He came to meet the greatest need of your life – the need to be saved from sin and reconciled to the God who made you in His image. He died for you, to pay the ransom for your liberty. If you will turn to Him by faith today and call upon Him as Lord and Savior, He will save you and set you free that you may serve Him and serve on another in His name.