Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Tragedy of Apostasy: Mark 14:17-21

Audio available here
(Due to a technical glitch, part of the introduction is missing in the audio. The remark I made at the end of the message on the audio has to do with a piece of anonymous hate mail I received on the Thursday prior to the Sunday when this message was preached.)

They say that confession is good for the soul, and I have a confession to make. I’m not proud of it, but I feel I need to just get it out in the open. I have a problem with prejudice. No, I don’t mean racial prejudice. My prejudice has to do with snakes. When I see a snake, I assume it is up to no good. In fact, I would say that my prejudice is more accurately described as a hatred. I think the only good snakes are dead ones. Now, animal lovers will tell me that I need to change my views on snakes. They tell me I need to give snakes a chance. They say there’s some good snakes out there. The Scarlet Kingsnake, for instance, I am told makes a wonderful pet and kills other problem species. And I know people who say they are beautiful. They are colorful with bands red, black, and yellow along their body. But there is another snake that is colorful with bands of red, black, and yellow along its body which is deadly venomous. The Coral Snake has the second most potent venom of any snake found in the United States. The Kingsnake and the Coral Snake look almost just alike. The difference is in the order of the colors in their stripes. A little poem is used to tell them apart. When red meets black, venom lacks. When red meets yellow, it will kill a fellow. But my prejudice against snakes is such that when I see one, I don’t take the time to recite poetry or to ask the snake if he is friend or foe. When it comes to snakes, looks can be deceiving, and the deception could be deadly.

The same can be true of those who call themselves Christian. Among those who call themselves Christian are those who have genuinely been born-again. Through the convicting and regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, they have turned from sin and placed their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. And then there are those who have taken the label of Christian upon themselves without ever having been genuinely converted. They have found church involvement to be of some benefit to their life and are fond of certain aspects of Christian practice. But they are not genuinely saved; they are apostates. The word apostate or apostasy refers to a counterfeit believer. It is one who pretends to be a Christian, and one who may in due time turn their backs on Jesus altogether. They do not lose their salvation, because you cannot lose something you never had. By their defection from the faith, they demonstrate themselves to have never been saved. True believers are empowered by the Holy Spirit to persevere in the Christian faith; apostates rely upon self-effort, and when that is exhausted, they fall away.

Christian history has seen many apostates. And the Scriptures tell us that in the last days, we can expect many more. In His parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13, Jesus told of how the enemy comes in the night and sows tares, or weeds, among the wheat. And both grow together in the same field, but when harvest comes, they will be gathered and separated. The wheat will be brought into the master’s barn, and the tares will be thrown into the fire. That parable is about apostasy. There will always be tares sown among the wheat, and there will always be false believers found amongst the faithful. It was true of Jesus’ 12 disciples, and it will continue to be true among His people until He returns. In our brief passage today, Jesus warned His disciples concerning the tragedy of apostasy as He indicated that one of them would betray Him. And we must take heed to these words and receive them as a warning against this tragedy as well. Several tragedies of apostasy are found here in these verses.

The first of these tragedies are seen in our Lord’s words in vv18 & 20.
I. Christian involvement does not prevent apostasy (vv 18, 20)

That should go without saying, for only those who are involved in Christian activity can commit apostasy. It is only those who have the appearance of being Christian and who make the claim of being Christian who may in fact be apostate. But this is a tragedy nonetheless. Notice what Jesus says of the one who is going to betray Him. He says in v18, “One of you will betray Me – one who is eating with Me.” He says in v20, “It is one of the 12, one who dips with Me in the bowl.” Notice the closeness of this one to Jesus. Here He is gathered for Passover, an observance usually partaken with one’s family with His disciples. These 12 are those for whom He spent a night in prayer before choosing them to be His own. And one of them, as Jesus says in John’s gospel, “is a devil.”

It is significant that twice Jesus mentions the fact that He will be betrayed by one who has fellowshipped with Him at the table. His words here echo the 41st Psalm, in which David laments the betrayal of Ahithophel, who had been his trusted friend. He says, “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.” In that culture, sharing a meal together was a precious symbol of friendship and loyalty. To betray someone with whom you had shared a table, a meal, even a single dish, was an unthinkable act of treachery.

Someone has said, “Friends are something we never have enough of, and seldom have as many we think.” Have you ever felt like that? David felt that. Ahithophel had been his trusted counselor, and he turned his back on David to conspire in the rebellion of Absalom. Jesus felt it too. He knew in advance that one of those whom He had chosen to be with Him and to serve Him, with whom He had shared a table of fellowship, would turn his back and betray Him.

Christian activity and church involvement does not a Christian make. It is possible to walk the aisle of the church, have perfect attendance in Sunday School, to be a teacher, a deacon, even a pastor, to be the best dressed, friendliest person in the church and not be born again. Conversion is not the result of our works. Ephesians 2:8-9 is as true today as it was when Paul wrote it: “by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Christian involvement may in fact be a false assurance that keeps one from seeing his or her true need for salvation. The question is, “What are you trusting to save you?” And if the answer is anything you have done, like walking an aisle, joining the church, attending the church, or anything else that is done out of self-effort, then a person is not saved. Our only hope of being saved is Jesus. We must trust Him alone – His death as the payment for our sins, His resurrection as the assurance of His promise. And until a person has turned from self-reliance and self-effort to cast themselves wholly upon the mercy of God in Jesus, they remain lost in their sins no matter how involved he or she may be in Christian activity. They are apostate unless they have been genuinely born again. And that is a TRAGEDY!

Is it possible that in some Baptist church today somewhere in America, there sits one or more individuals who call themselves Christian, who are regularly involved in Christian activity, who on the surface appear to be Christian, but who will betray Jesus and fall away from the faith? I would say that, if among the 12 whom Jesus hand-picked to follow Him there could be apostates, then it is not only possible but probable that the same is true in many congregations today. Immanuel Baptist Church is no exception. And that is a tragedy to think that one with whom we have enjoyed fellowship, one who has sat by our side Sunday by Sunday, one who has been involved in the work of the Lord in this church, could actually not be saved, and one day turn his or her back on Jesus and walk away from the faith altogether.

I understand human nature enough to know that when you hear that, you will be inclined to think, “I wonder who it could be? Could it be him? Could it be her?” But I believe this is the wrong question to ask. And here we move to the second tragedy of apostasy found in this passage.

II. It is possible to be apostate and not know it. (v19)

When Jesus said, “One of you will betray Me,” notice that the disciples did not begin consulting with one another speculating who it might be. They do not say, “I bet He is talking about Judas.” Instead, each one to the man, including Judas, says, “Surely not I?” Here sits Peter, James, John, and Andrew, each of whom having had the opportunity of private fellowship with Jesus as His inner circle. Yet these even question, “Lord, will it be me?” Here sits Judas Iscariot, who has already struck the deal with the Sanhedrin for the betrayal, and even he asks, “Surely not I?”

One of the most crucial doctrines of the Christian faith is the total depravity of man. We are born sinners. No exceptions. Since Adam and Eve fell to sin in the garden, every person ever born with the exception of the Lord Jesus Himself has a sinful nature. Total depravity does not mean that we are as bad as we could possibly be. No matter how bad a person is, it isn’t hard to imagine that they could be worse! Rather, total depravity means that sin has infected every part of our being. Sin affects our reasoning, our decision-making, our thought patterns, our actions, our relationships, and every other aspect of our lives. Timothy George, our esteemed Southern Baptist brother and Dean of the Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, prefers to use the phrase “Radical Corruption” to describe our sinful state. Perhaps that better captures the idea.

Now, because of our radically corrupted nature, we are all capable of unthinkable evil. No one is exempt. Jeremiah 17:9 says it like this: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?” What that means is that I am unaware of the capabilities of my own heart. I can’t even understand myself. Do you realize that Jesus knows your heart better than you do? He knows more than you and I do what we are truly capable of. Therefore, when He says, “One of you will betray me,” the appropriate response is not, “Well I know it won’t be me, so who is talking about?” The right response is, “Lord, could I be that one?” And were it not for the work of the Holy Spirit in producing perseverance in those who are genuinely converted, it very well could be me, or you, or any other person who calls themselves His follower.

The Apostle Paul issued a warning in 1 Cor 10:12: “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.” Jesus statement here about the self-deceiving nature of apostasy needs to shake us all into a soul-check. As I prepared these words this week, I had to come aside with the Lord and say, “Oh Lord, you know my heart better than I do. If I am falsely assured or self-deceived, please convict my heart of the truth.” What am I trusting in to save me? My own goodness? My own efforts? My own words? God help me if that is true. I trust in Christ alone to save me, and to secure me unto Himself for eternity. I am no better than the hymn-writer who confessed in that great hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” that he is “prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love; Here’s my heart Lord take and seal it for Thy courts above.”

I do not want to be paralyzed in my Christian walk by endless doubts of my own salvation. John tells us that he wrote his first epistle that we may know that we have eternal life. God wants us to rest in the finished work of Christ and to be assured of our relationship with Him. But at the same time, I know that there are worse things than moments of soul-searching doubt. Namely, progressing through life in false assurance of salvation when one really isn’t saved would be eternally and infinitely worse than a moment of passing doubt. In 2 Corinthians 13:5, Paul says, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?”

It is just as possible for us as it was for the twelve, that in our midst may very well be one or more who is self-decieved, lost in sin without knowing it, trusting in all the wrong things to save them. Will we be spiritually mature enough to say, “Lord, is it me?” and examine ourselves as we have been admonished? Or will we arrogantly walk on in presumption and assume, “It can’t be me, he must be talking about someone else.” I hope you are right. But a moment spent with Christ in the examination of your own soul in the light of the promises of His word could make a tremendous difference for each of us in this life, and more importantly in the life to come.

This brings us to the third tragedy of apostasy.

III. The consequences of apostasy are of unspeakable severity (v21)

Jesus says, “Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed.” This word Woe occurs frequently in the New Testament. It is a word of pain, of sorrow, of grief. It always expresses unpleasant realities. Almost always it precedes a pronouncement of judgment as it does here. Woe to this betrayer, Jesus says, for “it would have been good for that man if he had not been born.” The consequences of his apostasy are unspeakable. Jesus does not declare what those consequences will be, He only says that nonexistence would be preferable to it. Better, He says, to have never lived at all, than to face what awaits the apostate in eternity. What could this be? Well, we know that eternity only offers two destinations, and heaven hardly fits this description. It is plainly and painfully obvious that Jesus is speaking of the horrors of hell; horrors of such intensity that to speak of them would do injustice to them. He merely says that given the choice, one would choose to never even have lived than to end up there.

It has been said that in our day people by and large do not believe in heaven and hell. I think that is only half true. I think that a good many people believe in heaven, and that they wrongly believe that everyone will end up there. Just hang out at funeral homes and listen to the things that are said. I have stood beside the casket of hardened atheists, who to my knowledge, never came to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus, though ultimately only God knows for sure. And in those moments I have heard well-intentioned people say idiotic things like, “Well, at least they aren’t suffering anymore.” Beloved, if that person did not know the saving grace of Jesus, they haven’t begun to fathom the suffering that awaits them. And unlike the sufferings of this life, which are only temporary, the sufferings of hell are eternal.

On the surface, what noticeable difference is there between Judas Iscariot and Simon Peter? Both were called by Jesus to follow and serve Him. Both spent the better part of three entire years with Him. Both heard His wondrous teachings, and saw His glorious miracles. Yet one was saved and the other was lost. One had been genuinely converted to faith in Christ, the other was an apostate. One will spend eternity in heaven, the other, well it would be better for him if he’d never been born. But did they not both turn their backs on Jesus? Indeed they did. But Peter demonstrated the genuineness of his conversion by returning to the Lord in repentance, and he was restored. Judas went out and hanged himself in despair.

Now there are those who would say that it isn’t fair that Judas would have to suffer an eternity in hell because of his apostasy. After all, did Jesus not say, “The Son of Man is to go just as it is written of Him”? In other words, wasn’t Judas just carrying out God’s plan in handing Jesus over to die? So, he really didn’t have a choice did he? Why should he suffer these unspeakable consequences? Herein is the age-old conundrum of divine sovereignty and human freedom. Time does not permit us to discuss this in detail, but a little explanation is in order.

God knows the free actions that human beings will take in any given circumstance. And He providentially arranges the circumstances we find ourselves in so that our free actions further His purposes. His foreknowledge of our actions is perfect and infallible. But the moral decision to act remains our own free choice. Therefore, when we choose to sin, we are not absolved of moral responsibility. God’s foreknowledge and His providence did not force our hands to act. God chose to bring about a particular set of circumstances in creating this world and in sending His Son into this world to die for human sin. And those circumstances entailed Judas’ betrayal. Judas is not a blind victim of fatalistic providence and foreordination. He is a responsible moral agent who made a free choice. He did not determine Judas’ actions, but He determined the circumstances Judas found himself in. The choice, however, was Judas’ to make. And he chose to betray the Lord. Therefore, God is able to bring about His own purposes through the free action of Judas, and yet Judas remains accountable for his action. He will face the consequences of apostasy, and those consequences are unspeakably tragic.

The same is true of others who make a shipwreck of their own souls by resisting the Spirit’s promptings to be converted and who abandon Christ fully and finally. It isn’t that they lose their salvation. They never had it to begin with. And as a result, it would be better for that person had they never been born, than to face the unspeakable torment of hell.

The tragedies of apostasy are innumerable. But in this passage, these three stand out. Christian involvement does not prevent apostasy. Apostates may be self-deceived. And the consequences of apostasy are unthinkable. Understanding these tragedies should prompt us to respond in particular ways. Most importantly, we should heed the words of Paul in 2 Cor 13:5 to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith. How do you do that? First, consider this question: If God were to ask you, “Why should I let you into heaven?” what would you say? If you would answer anything other than, “Jesus Christ died for my sins and rose again, and I have put my trust completely in Him to save me,” then you are trusting in the wrong things to save you. Being a good person, attending church, joining the church, being baptized, taking communion, saying your prayers, or any number of other good things, will not save you. Christ alone saves. So we must ask ourselves, “What am I trusting to save me?” And the answer should be Christ alone. Second, we should examine our lives for evidence that the Holy Spirit abides in us. In Galatians 5, Paul contrasts the deeds of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit. Where a life is dominated by the flesh, it will be marked by immorality , impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. But where the Spirit of Christ indwells and fills a believer, his or her life will be characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Other biblical assurances of regeneration include a love for and obedience to God’s word and love for other believers. We must ask ourselves, “Are these things present in my life?” And if through that self-examination, one discovers that he or she is actually not saved, then that individual should with all haste turn to Christ in repentance and faith and be born again. Many times, embarrassment and pride will stand in the way. A person who has played the church game for many years will not actually want to admit that they were actually unsaved. But beloved, if one of us is apostate, it would be a severe tragedy to let pride stand in the way of the opportunity for salvation. We must humble ourselves and cast ourselves on the mercy of God if that is the case.

Then secondly, the knowledge of apostasy and its tragedies, should move us to prayer for Christ’s church. There will always be tares sown among the wheat. We must be in prayer for the church to be led by regenerate, Spirit-filled believers, and that the falsely assured apostates in the church will be prevented from disrupting the fellowship and function of the body. And combined with this prayerfulness should be a determination to always be sharing the gospel, not only outside the walls of the church but inside as well. We need to share our testimonies with each other, and share with one another the promises of God’s words. We never know when a casual conversation may actually be a divine appointment in which God is going to use our words to draw a person to salvation.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Middle Knowledge Musings on Judas' Betrayal

As I work through Mark 14:17-21 in preparation for this Sunday's sermon, I am wrestling with the dual reality of God's foreknowledge of Judas' betrayal and Judas' moral responsibility for his actions. There is only one solution to this dilemma: Middle Knowledge. What follows is my own attempt to think through this and disentangle my thoughts by putting them into words.

God knows the free actions that human agents will take in any given circumstance. He knows, for instance, that if Judas is placed in circumstance C, he will perform action B. He chooses which circumstances to actualize according to His own divine freedom and for His own purposes. His actualizing is not determined by our actions. By actualizing circumstance C, His foreknowledge of Judas’ action is perfect and infallible. Judas can do no other; if he were to do otherwise, God’s knowledge would be otherwise. God is sovereign over the circumstance, and uses it for His glory. But the choice remains Judas’ own free decision. Therefore, he is not absolved of moral responsibility. God chose to actualize a particular set of circumstances, and those circumstances happen to entail Judas’ betrayal. Judas is not a victim of fatalistic providence and foreordination. He is a responsible moral agent who made a free choice. God is not to be blamed for actualizing the circumstance. He is free to actualize any circumstance He desires for His own purposes. He did not determine Judas’ actions, but He determined the circumstances Judas found himself in. Therefore, God is able to bring about His own purposes through the free action of Judas, and Judas remains accountable for his action.

Now, I just have to figure out how to say that in a sermon in a way that won't be 100 stories over everyone's head.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Fellowship With Jesus: Mark 14:12-16

One of the most widely discussed books among Evangelicals in the last year has been The Shack by William Young. I have read reviews of the book that say it is the greatest book written in a long time, and I have read reviews that said it is the most horrible book to ever be written. So, I just decided to read it for myself, and I have to say, admitting a few things that made me uncomfortable in the book, I thought it was okay -- not as bad as some say, nowhere near as good as others say. The book revolves around a terrible tragedy that strikes a family and how God helps the father of this family deal with it. The man walks down to his mailbox one day and finds there a note inviting him to return to the scene of the tragedy. The note, the man discovers, is from God. Now, that’s a novel. It is a work of fiction, and we shouldn’t go to our mailboxes every day wondering if we might get such an invitation sent directly to us. But the fact is that God does desire that we fellowship with Him, and for more than just a weekend.
This passage of Mark’s gospel opens “on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb was being sacrificed.” The feast of Unleavened Bread was a week-long observance which began with the observance of Passover. This was one of the pilgrimage festivals of Israel. It was a desire of every pious Jew to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem, and though estimates vary, it is safe to say that Jerusalem was thoroughly packed with people who came there from all over. Even today, Jewish people will conclude their Passover observance with the phrase, “Next year, in Jerusalem!” Passover was, and still is, a time of family togetherness. And in Jesus’ day many people would open their homes and provide space for traveling families to participate in Passover celebrations.
Knowing that Jesus would want to observe Passover within the city, and that He had no family in the region, His disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and prepare for You to eat the Passover?” I find it interesting that they said, “prepare for You.” But Jesus quickly turns this into an invitation for His followers to join Him in the Passover, saying in v15, “Prepare for us.” During this historically and prophetically significant time, Jesus desires the fellowship of His disciples and has them make arrangements, not for Him only, but for all of them to join Him. The passage is about preparation. Three times in this short span of verses the word “prepare” is repeated. The disciples prepared for this opportunity of fellowship with Jesus. And Jesus desires that you and I might make preparations to fellowship with Him as well. Several preparations are seen the text.
I. We prepare for fellowship with Jesus by serving Him willingly (v12)
The disciples have not always been portrayed in the best light in this Gospel. We have seen their failures far more often than their successes. But here, they are to be commended for they take the initiative to approach Jesus about the Passover plans. The preparations that they go to make are not the result of burdensome orders that Jesus has assigned to them. Rather, they make an unsolicited offer to get the meal organized. They do not do it begrudgingly, but willingly, as they approach Jesus and say, “Where do You want us to go and prepare for You to eat the Passover?” They don’t have to do this. They want to do this. And they want to do what Jesus wants them to do.
If you have raised children, you know the joy of seeing those children do the right thing without being prompted. Our children are like most others: their rooms are nearly always in disarray. And we say, “You need to clean this room,” and they clean it a little bit, and say, “Is that good enough?” Well, a few weeks ago, I came home from the office, and Solomon was in his room with the door closed and he said, “Don’t come in here, it’s a surprise.” A little while later, he emerged and said, “Now you can come in. I cleaned my room and wanted to surprise you with it.” That moment made me one proud papa! It brought joy to my heart to see him taking the initiative and responsibility to do a good thing without being told to do it. And he did it better than he ever has when we’ve told him to clean the room. But God also used that moment to teach me a lesson about Himself. You see, God also knows when I am serving Him begrudgingly and when I am serving Him willingly. There are times when we do the right thing because “we have to,” and times when we do the right thing “because we want to.” And my desire for my own life is that the desire to serve Him willingly would replace the burden of serving Him begrudgingly more and more every day.
In the self-serving culture in which we live, the idea of willingly serving another is not popular. We tend to do only what we have to do in terms of serving others. So why should we be so eager and so willing to serve Jesus? Quite simply, it is because He is worthy. To serve Christ is to serve the greatest possible good. To serve anything or anyone less, even serving ourselves, is to waste our lives in futile idolatry. When we truly fathom what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, our perspective is radically changed. God has come to us in the person of Christ to reconcile us to Himself through the blood of Christ’s cross and conquered death for us through the resurrection, not because we deserved it or earned it, but because He loves us, He pities us, He is gracious and merciful toward us. What greater joy could there be in human existence than to serve such a One as this with our highest affections and our most joyful and willing service?
John Piper writes extensively on what he calls “Christian Hedonism.” Now, this sounds like a contradiction in terms. Hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure. Pursuing pleasure seems to be at odds with serving Jesus. But the idea of Piper’s Christian Hedonism is finding pleasure through serving Jesus. It is wrong to pursue pleasure when the things that bring us pleasure are at odds with Christ. But when He is our pleasure and our delight, then pursuing anything else would be a waste. If we make Him our highest pleasure, then there is no sin in passionately and aggressively pursuing the pleasure that He affords through our fellowship with Him.
Do we serve Him with our lives? Most of us would say that we do in some way or another, but what is our motive? Is doing what Jesus wants us to do something we think is burdensome? Or do we want to do what He wants us to do? Do we take the initiative to seek opportunities to serve Him? If we would turn the “have-tos” of serving Him into “want-tos”, we would find ourselves in fellowship with Him in the midst of our service.
II. We prepare for fellowship with Jesus by trusting Him completely (vv13-15)
Jesus gives two of His disciples a set of instructions to follow. They are to go into the city, find a man carrying a pitcher of water, follow him to a house, ask the owner of the house to show them to the room, and make preparations there. Some elements of these instructions are detailed: they have a specific encounter to anticipate, and are given specific instructions on what to say. But on the other hand, the instructions as a whole are very vague. He doesn’t tell them where in the city they are to go or who it is they are to meet, or where the house is where these preparations are to be made. He only says, “Go into the city and a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him.” The only part of these instructions that would make sense to the two disciples is “the city.” They would have understood that to be Jerusalem. But Jerusalem was big city. And admittedly, a man with a pitcher of water might stand out distinctly, for usually it was women who fetched pitchers of water from the wells. But Jerusalem was crowded with travelers at this time, possibly being 6-8 times more people there than usual. How will they ever find this man, this house, or this room? They simply have to trust Him completely.
When I was a kid, my parents used to like to go out on Sunday drives. They would say, “Let’s hop in the car and go for a ride.” I would say, “Where are we going?” They would say, “You’ll find out when we get there.” In other words, my job was to sit in the backseat and let them drive, and trust them. I never looked forward to those drives. I like to know where I am going and what to expect. I was overly-analytical even at a young age. I like details. If you are giving me instructions on how to do something, I will often write it down, and ask multiple questions for clarification. If Jesus had given me the same instructions he gave these two disciples, I may say, “OK, when you say “city,” you mean Jerusalem right? And this man with the pitcher – what’s his name? What does he look like? What color is the pitcher? Will it be on his shoulder or in his hands? And just in case we don’t find him, where is the house? What’s the address? Let me Google Map it so I have a back up plan.” And so on. But the disciples didn’t ask those questions. They trusted Jesus.
In a way, they are like Abraham. In Genesis 12, when God called Abraham, He said, “Go forth from your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you.” God told him what to leave, but He didn’t tell him where he was going. Abraham had to decide to trust God to do what He said He would. He had to trust Him to show him the land to which he was going. The apostle Paul said in 2 Cor 5:7 that we walk by faith and not by sight. And like Abraham, like these two disciples, we can fellowship with Christ as we walk by faith, trusting Him completely. He has complete knowledge of all that is and all that will be. He has sovereign control over the circumstances of our lives. He is the truth. He is good. He loves us. And He leads us, as the Psalmist said, “in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” And knowing that, we can trust Him, even when the directions He gives us to follow don’t answer all of our questions or contain all the details we might prefer. The question is not, “Is He trustworthy?” He has demonstrated that time and time again in the Scriptures and in our lives. The question is rather, “Are we willing to trust him completely?” As we walk with Him in that kind of trust, we find ourselves in fellowship with Him.
III. We prepare for fellowship with Jesus by obeying Him faithfully (v16)
Jesus gave the two disciples three instructions. They were to (A) enter the city, (B) follow the man with the water to the house where they would inquire about the room, and (C) make preparations. And v16 tells us that they obeyed His instructions precisely. We see that (A) the disciples went out and came to the city just as He had told them to do. Then (B) they found it just as He had told them. This is a summary statement which indicates that they found the guy with the water, and followed him to the house, and asked the owner about the room, etc. Finally, (C) they prepared the Passover. They were faithful to the instructions Jesus gave them, and obeyed each one.
General George Patton once said that when it came to selecting a man for an important promotion, he would line up all the candidates and say, “Men, I want a trench dug behind warehouse ten. Make this trench 8 feet long, 3 feet wide and 6 inches deep.” And Patton said that he would watch them while they got their tools out of the warehouse. Some of them were questioning the instructions. Some were arguing over the dimensions of the trench. Some were complaining about having to dig the trench by hand when they had power equipment they could use. Others would complain that it was too hot or too cold to be digging trenches. Some would say that this was work that should be assigned to people of lower rank. But Patton said, “Finally, one man will order, ‘What difference does it make what he wants to do with this trench? Let’s get it dug and get out of here.” Patton said that man would be the one who gets the promotion.[1] He followed the orders obediently without complaint, question, or criticism.
From what we know of these disciples, we wouldn’t be surprised if they had blown it. We might expect them to complain about the obscure directions and say, “What’s this all about anyway? Why did we even volunteer for this job? Any room will do, let’s just get something set up.” It would not surprise us if they came back and said, “Sorry Lord, we never saw the guy with the water.” But in this case, like few others in the Gospel of Mark, the disciples did exactly what Jesus told them to do. They obeyed Him faithfully.
Because of our fallen human nature, we are prone to look for shortcuts, easy-ways-out, and better ideas. But when it comes to being obedient to Jesus, we must remember that His way may not be the easy way, but it the right way, and there are no better ideas. And there are no short-cuts or substitutes to obedience. Obeying Him partly is disobeying Him completely. Obedience does not need to be thought of as a laborsome thing that we do for Him. Rather, in our obedience, we are doing something with Jesus. He joins us in task and works alongside of and through us. Obedience prepares the way for fellowship with Him.
The Bible is full of words of grace. When we read about God’s love for us, His offer of salvation for our sins, His promise of redemption and eternal life, we are reading about things we do not deserve. We do not deserve to fellowship with the maker of heaven and earth. But grace is all about God giving us what we don’t deserve. If we all got what we deserve from God, we would be perishing eternally because of our sinful condition. But thanks be to God, He has reconciled us to Himself through the blood of Jesus. And as we turn from sin and receive Jesus as Lord and Savior in our lives, we experience His grace. When Jesus says, “Prepare for us,” that’s grace. He wants to fellowship with His people and we can experience that fellowship with Him as we follow in the example of these disciples: serving Him willingly, trusting Him completely, obeying Him faithfully. The Christian life is not easy, and Jesus didn’t promise us that all of our experiences would be pleasant. But knowing that He desires to join us in fellowship as we walk with Him through this life will help us to view every opportunity we have to serve Him, trust Him, and obey Him as moments of fellowship with Jesus.

[1] Craig Brian Larson, Contemporary Illustrations for Preachers, Teachers, and Writers (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 161.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Value of Devotion: Mark 14:1-11

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If you have a pulse, and are even slightly informed about current events, then you are most likely concerned about the economy. If you drive a vehicle, you are concerned about it, as you pull into the gas station and see prices hovering near the $4 mark. The declining value of the American dollar around the world is creating concern over our financial future. Fear, uncertainty, and even despair abounds as people are looking for ways to stretch their dollars even further. We want to every dollar we spend to provide the best possible return, and find ourselves reexamining what really matters most.

Our passage today has something to do with value, namely the value of devotion to Jesus. It is one of several passages in Mark that has been described as a “sandwich.” In these “sandwich” passages, two stories are woven together for the purpose of making a singular point. The two episodes interpret each other. So, if you imagine this passage of Scripture is a hamburger, then verses 1-2, and verses 10-11 are the bun, and verses 3-9 are the meat. Verses 1-2, 10-11 are about how Judas conspired with the Sanhedrin to bring about the arrest of Jesus. Verses 3-9 are about an unnamed woman who pours a vial of costly perfume over Jesus’ head. Well, on the surface it may seem like they have nothing to do with each other. But in fact they do. They are both about the value of devotion to Jesus. The actions the unnamed woman in the passage stand in stark contrast to those of Judas Iscariot in this regard. The cost of her devotion to Jesus is far superior to the cost of Judas’ betrayal. We see in these two the contrast of genuine devotion and superficial devotion. One knows spares no expense to express the all-surpassing worth of the Lord Jesus, and the other pursues personal gain.

Let’s explore those ideas more thoroughly as we examine the text.

I. Genuine Devotion Spares No Expense for the Sake of Christ (vv3-9)

In the middle portion of this passage, we find Jesus at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany. The identity of this person has caused some debate, for if he was a leper, he would certainly not be hosting a large gathering in his home. Therefore, it has been suggested that perhaps Jesus had healed him, or even that he had died prior to this event. After all, it only says that it was his home, not that he was there. If this is the same event recorded in John 12, then it is also the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Perhaps Simon the Leper was their father. And if it is the same event recorded there, then the woman in this story is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. But her name is not given here. It is not who she is which is important here, but who Jesus is, and how this woman or anyone else who is genuinely committed to Him expresses their devotion to Him.

Notice the great detail that Mark includes about her act of devotion. Being known for his brevity, we would expect no more of him than to say, “There came a woman who poured some perfume over His head.” But he tells us much more than this. First of all, he tells us that she brought an alabaster vial. Alabaster refers to a finely-textured, white, translucent stone, and takes its name from Alabastron, a city in Egypt where it was found. It was used to make beautiful and costly vessels, often used for storing expensive perfumes and ointments. Their fragrances were thought to be better preserved in alabaster than other containers. And this is what the alabaster vial of this woman contained. It was full of very costly perfume of pure nard. John tells us in his Gospel that it contained a pound of this fragrant perfume. Nard was extracted from a plant that grew in the Himalayas. It was rare and very costly. And this woman’s perfume was no by-product – it was pure nard. The on-the-spot estimate of the value of this vial of perfume was over 300 denarii. A denarius was an average day’s wage for a common laborer in that day, so we are talking about close to a year’s salary. And she does not merely anoint His head with a droplet from the bottle; she snaps the delicate neck of the bottle, rendering it utterly useless from that time forward, and expends the entire pound of ointment on Him.

Some of the disciples who observed this considered the extravagant display of this woman’s devotion to be a waste. They said, “This perfume might have been sold … and the money given to the poor.” Back in Mark 6, we learned that 200 denarii would have been enough to buy food for over 5,000 people. That means 300 denarii may feed in excess of 7500 people. But while they were indignant and scolding her, Jesus’ evaluation of her deeds was markedly different. He did not think that the perfume had been wasted, but rather says, “She had done a good deed to Me.” It isn’t that Jesus is opposed to helping the poor. In fact, His words in v7 indicate that His disciples will have plenty of opportunities to do good to the poor as often as they wish. But this woman does not always have the opportunity to lavish her devotion upon Jesus. In a few days, He will be put to death. He has told His disciples this repeatedly, but they have never responded in any way to indicate that they believe it to be true. Not only does this woman believe it, but she understands the significance of it. She understands that, like her bottle, His body will be crushed, and His precious life-blood will be poured out in love for mankind. And her act symbolizes that understanding, as she pours out the costly nard in love for Him.

Jesus says, “She has anointed My body beforehand for the burial.” When Jesus died, all of His disciples had abandoned Him. His body was claimed for burial by Joseph of Arimathea who laid Him in his own tomb hurriedly before the Sabbath began. There was no time for the typical anointing with spices and oils. And when certain women came to the tomb after the Sabbath ended, they found the tomb to be empty. This woman’s anointing was the only preparation He ever received for His burial. This was no waste; it was an expression of His all-surpassing worth in an extravagant display of devotion.

It is kind of ironic that the world doesn’t really mind fanatics, unless they are fanatic about their devotion to Jesus. I am a sports fan, and when I attend sporting events, it is not unusual to find someone who has painted their face in team colors, or worse, they have removed their shirt to emblazon a message of team spirit on their chests and backs. They carry signs and scream their heads off in fanaticism for their team. No one seems to mind. I saw a minivan in a parking lot the other day, and all over its windows were painted slogans in support of a political candidate. Every day I drive past a house that has a dozen campaign signs in the front yard. No problem. It’s perfectly acceptable in our culture to be identified as a radical follower of a sports team or a political party or cause. But how about being that radically devoted to the God who took upon flesh to live and die for you and who is risen from the dead? That’s just looney. Time for the padded room. Let a Christian quote a Scripture verse over dinner, or ask a coworker about the condition of his or her soul, or have a Bible on their desk, and suddenly everyone panics. This person is an intolerable fanatic. Let it be known that a Christian tithes or contributes to missionary causes, or spends hours each week in church activities, and people want to talk about wasting time and money and all the better things that could be done with that time or money. Even Jesus’ disciples did not, at this point, understand such ardent devotion. We shouldn’t be surprised when people who have no concern for Christ don’t understand our devotion to Him.

Do we find ourselves placing limits on our devotion to Christ? Please understand me, this isn’t about money. The woman didn’t sell the ointment and give the money to Jesus for His ministry expenses. She busted the jar wide-open and poured it all out on Him. It was about the fact that, as Jesus said, “She did what she could.” Whatever means she had to express her devotion to Jesus, she knew that He deserved it, for He is worth far more to her than the contents of that jar. What about you? What can you do to show the worth of Jesus in your life? What do you have that might be used to express your devotion to Him? Is it a talent that He has blessed you with? Is it time you could spend in service and worship? Is it some item of treasured importance that might be a fitting symbol of His surpassing greatness? When we understand the infinite value of who He is and what He has done, and genuinely devote ourselves to Him, there is no expense of time, talent, or treasure to be spared for Him.

Notice what Jesus says about this woman in v9: “Truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be spoken of in memory of her.” Wherever the death of Christ for man’s sin and His resurrection are proclaimed, and the call for faith and repentance goes out beckoning men and women to turn from sin in complete devotion to Him, this great act of the unnamed woman in this passage will be remembered. Her devotion to Christ knew no limits, and neither will the devotion of any who truly fathom who He is and what He has done for them. Genuine devotion spares no expense for the sake of Christ.

But the story is not only about her devotion. There is another, more tragic, component to what is said here. In contrast to the genuine devotion that spares no expense for the sake of Christ, we see in the actions of Judas Iscariot here that …

II. Superficial Devotion Seeks Personal Profit from Jesus (vv1-2; vv10-11)

There are two individuals in this passage whose deeds will never be forgotten. Jesus tells us this of the unnamed woman. It goes without saying concerning Judas Iscariot. But his deeds are remembered for a far different reason, and I would venture to say his deed is even more memorable and has been spoken of more often than hers. One of the most tragic statements in this passage is the phrase, “who was one of the twelve.” Judas had been with Jesus from the beginning. Jesus had chosen him and called him to follow. He had seen all the miracles and heard all the teachings. He had intimate access to the incarnate God, but never moved beyond proximity to saving faith. Never do we read of him calling Jesus “Lord” in the Gospels. And in time, Judas turned his back on Jesus in betrayal.

Now, why did he do this? Luke 22:3 says that Satan entered him. John 13:2 says that the devil put it into his heart to betray Jesus. Then in John 13:27, we read that Satan entered into him. But Satan only influences people to do what they are willing to do in the first place. So Satan is an agent, but like you and I when we sin, it ultimately boils down to our own desire. As stated in James 1:14-15, “each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin.” I like to illustrate it like this. If eating meat were a sin, and thank God it isn’t, Satan would be powerless to tempt me with images of liver. I have no desire for liver. But, bacon, now that’s a different story. Because I desire bacon, Satan could appeal to that desire to tempt me to eat it. So there had to be some desire within Judas that Satan capitalized on in order to entice him into this sin.

Some have suggested that Judas had followed Jesus out of a nationalistic zeal to see the Messiah overthrow Roman oppression and liberate Israel politically and militarily. And when Jesus began talking about going to Jerusalem to die rather than to kill, Judas lost interest. The Messiahship of Jesus would no longer profit him personally, or so he thought, not understanding his need for deliverance from sin. Others have suggested that it was this incident with the unnamed woman that caused Judas to loose interest in following Jesus. This is based on what we read about this incident in John 12. There we are told that Judas raised the protest about selling the perfume and giving it to the poor. John says, “Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it.” If this woman had sold the perfume and donated the 300-plus denarii to the ministry efforts of Jesus, then Judas could skim a little of it off the top, knowing it would never be missed. So, when it was seemingly wasted by pouring it over Jesus’ head, Judas realized that his financial interests were not shared by Jesus, and he went elsewhere to see how he could profit financially from his access to Jesus. We do not know for certain which of these, if either of them, were at the root of his betrayal, but we can be certain that Satan appealed to some internal desire within Judas to lead him to commit this heinous act of betrayal.

Whatever the explanation, Judas’ actions demonstrate that his devotion to Jesus was only superficial. And when following Jesus ceased to profit him as much as betraying him would, Judas began to conspire with the enemies of Christ for His destruction. Knowing the desire of the Sanhedrin to destroy Jesus, Judas went to them to strike a deal. Mark tells us that they promised to give him money. But this was not an unsolicited offer. In Matthew’s account, he tells us that Judas went to the chief priests and said, “What are you willing to give me to betray Him to you?” And in a specific fulfillment of a Messianic prophecy, they arranged the terms of payment at thirty pieces of silver. Thirty pieces of silver would equal approximately 120 denarii, roughly one-third of the value of the perfume that the woman had poured out on Jesus. In the eyes of Judas, devotion to Jesus wasn’t worth 300 denarii, but the betrayal of Him was worth 120. In other words, Judas sold Jesus at a discount, and personally profited by the act of betrayal.

Superficial devotion will follow Jesus as long as there is the prospect of personal profit. As long as being a disciple of Jesus will make a person popular, prosperous, or powerful, they are all in. But when following Jesus means suffering, sacrificing, and struggling, the person begins to look for a way out. They are off to whatever they can find that will offer them personal gain. And when it occurs, it gladdens the self-avowed enemies of Jesus. The gift of the woman’s perfume, Jesus said, was a good thing. The offer of Judas’s betrayal, we are told made the chief priests glad. They thought they would have to delay their plans to destroy Him until the city was emptied of its multitude of Passover participants, but because of Judas’s unrestricted access to Jesus, they knew they could take care of the Jesus problem expediently without causing a riot among the people of the city. What more could they ask for?

Judas’s act of betrayal stands out as one of the most tragic events of history. We wonder how someone who was so close to Jesus could literally sell Him at such a discount rate for his own personal gain. Yet, daily we face the costly dilemma of clinging to Christ or exchanging Him for our own gain. When speaking a word about Jesus may cost us a relationship, when our Christian convictions threaten our employment status or our financial portfolio, when our devotion to Christ demands a sacrifice of time, talent or treasure, what will our decision say about the value of our devotion to Him? Will we demonstrate through our choices and actions that Jesus is worthy of whatever costly sacrifice is necessary? Or will we demonstrate through our choices and actions that our devotion to Him can be purchased at clearance-sale prices, as we exchange Him for our own gain in other areas of life? Like Esau selling his birthright for a bowl of soup, will we turn our backs on Jesus when the going gets tough or when our personal security is threatened by our allegiance to Him? Or, like the woman with the valuable perfume, will it be said of us, “He did what he could,” “She did what she could,” to demonstrate to the world around us that Jesus Christ is worthy of genuine devotion, and our allegiance to Him is worth more than any of the riches that this world affords?

When Don and Caroline Richardson went to live as missionaries among the Sawi people of Irian Jaya, they encountered an unusual challenge. When they told the Sawi the story of Jesus, the Sawi acclaimed Judas as the hero of the story. Dumbfounded by this, Richardson investigated the people’s values and found that treachery was one of the most highly regarded characteristics of these people. Judas was, in their eyes, a model traitor, and worthy of their esteem and emulation. What is unusual about that encounter is that the Sawi people weren’t ashamed to admit their admiration of Judas. But every day, without saying it, some person who is merely superficially devoted to Jesus cashes out and turns his or her back on Him for personal gain. But also every day, there are those who are genuinely devoted to Jesus, who make the difficult and costly decision to do whatever they can to demonstrate the all-surpassing worth of Christ. And every day, you and I are put into life’s crucible where our choices and actions will show others the value of our devotion to Jesus.

Jesus says that wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be spoken of in memory of her. We proclaim the gospel today, declaring that God has come to dwell among humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, and He lived a perfect life that satisfied the righteous standard of God, and died in the place of sinners like me and you so that in Him, our sins might be paid for by a righteous substitute. And He is risen from the dead, offering us forgiveness and eternal life if we will turn to Him in repentance and faith. And we proclaim that He is worthy of our most genuine devotion, as seen in the actions of this woman. It is no waste to do what we can do for Jesus. He is worthy of our entire lives, for He became that vessel that was broken and spilled out for us, that we might be anointed with the grace and mercy of God.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Handwriting on the Wall

So, I am already having one of the most bizarre weeks on record. And we are out to dinner Friday night at our favorite Mexican restaurant: Las Estrellas of Winston-Salem. Haven't been there in a while -- in fact haven't been to Winston in a while. Donia's sister has a great idea: why not go downtown for coffee after dinner? Never gone to have coffee in downtown Winston-Salem, don't know anything about the coffee shops there. She recommends a place called Brew Nerds. Off we go. When we arrive at Brew Nerds, my brother-in-law asks to use the restroom, and the barista allows him to use the employees restroom. He comes out looking like he's seen a ghost. He says, "Do you guys come here ever? I thought you said you've never been here before." Right -- never been there before. So he says, "You've got to come in the restroom." The restroom is painted with chalkboard paint, and many people have "marked their territory" if you will. And the largest graffiti on the wall, just above the commode, extending almost to the ceiling is this:

OK. This is too bizarre. First of all, I know for a fact there aren't too many "Russ"es in the world. And there are even fewer "Donia"s in the world. There cannot be many combinations of "Donia & Russ" in the world, much less in our hometown of Winston-Salem. And what are the chances that someone writes this on a chalkboard wall in a coffee shop we've never been to before, and we just happen to show up and see it?

So, if there happens to be another Donia & Russ out there, we wish you all the best in your relationship for the future. If this was written just for us, thanks! We are in fact in a 4-ever bond of covenant love. If some psycho is out there stalking me trying to freak me out, it is working. Could it truly be a Daniel 5 miracle?

Monday, October 06, 2008

Alert Until the End: Mark 13:28-37

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One of the most popular and easily recognizable operas is Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.” It has some memorable pieces of music, but it is most well known for its length. The entire thing lasts about 15 hours, so it is presented in four separate intervals, or “cycles.” But one does not understand the whole opera until one has seen and heard all four cycles. So, at the end of each cycle, the weary opera goer may wonder, “Is it over yet?” But it isn’t over until the Valkyrie Brunnhilde takes the stage to sing the final number and ride into the funeral pyre of Sigfried. Now Brunnhilde is almost always depicted as a large woman clad with the traditional horned Viking helmet and armor. And hour after hour, as the audience wonders “Is it over yet?” each one is reminded that it isn’t over until the fat lady sings. That is thought to be the origin of that expression. Of course, the saying of Yogi Berra during the 1973 playoffs is perhaps more accurate: “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

Jesus has promised us that this world as we know it is going to end. He is going to return and exact perfect judgment, right every wrong, sentence every evildoer, and redeem His people. Like Wagner’s opera, we’ve been waiting for a long time, wondering at every unusual occurrence, “Is it over yet?” But still it goes on. Unlike Wagner’s opera, we are not waiting for a fat lady to sing. We are waiting for the return of the Lord Jesus. And as Yogi said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

In our passage today consists of the conclusion of what is called the Olivet Discourse, because it takes place, as v3 indicates, on the Mount of Olives. The entire chapter deals with the second coming of Christ and the end of this world. And we have seen over the past several weeks as we have studied the preceding verses that some of the things of which Jesus speaks here would happen in the lifetime of those who heard Him, particularly around the time of the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD. Other things spoken of here in the passage will not take place until what we might call “the very end,” around the time of His second coming. And we have noted that these two time frames are indicated by the use of demonstrative pronouns. In particular, when speaking about the events which will occur in the lifetime of some of His followers, Jesus uses the words “these things.” “These” and its singular “this” are used to refer to things that are near. But Jesus speaks of the events that will occur at the end of time as “those days” and “that day.” “That” and “those” are used to refer to things that are far off. And we have to be very careful to observe how He changes from one to the other throughout the passage. In the portion of the text we are examining today, we see that He uses both. In verses 28-30, He speaks of “these things” and “this generation” and speaks of things that are “near.” In verses 31-37, He speaks of “that day,” referring to the unknowable time of His return in the distant future.

Notice the repetition of similar ideas in vv33-37: In v33, He says, “Take heed,” and “Keep on the alert.” And in vv35 and 37, “Be on the alert.” In these verses, Jesus uses two parables to teach His disciples that they must be on alert until the end comes. But He says in v37, “What I say to you I say to all, ‘Be on the alert.’” In other words, it is not only His first-century band of followers who must be alert until the end, His 21st Century disciples must be alert as well. Why are we called to such alertness? There are two reasons indicated here in these parables.

First we see that …

I. We must be alert, for His coming is near (vv28-30).

Jesus tells His followers to “learn the parable from the fig tree.” Two kinds of trees were abundant in that region in Jesus’ day: the fig tree and the olive tree. The olive tree bore leaves year round. But the fig tree lost its leaves during the winter, and in late spring would begin to sprout leaves again. And so Jesus says, “When its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” The leaves on the fig tree indicated that springtime was drawing to a close and summer was just around the corner. The tree became a sign of the times for the people. Similarly, Jesus says that “when you see these things happen,” they will serve as a sign of the nearness of His return. Now, what are these things? He has used this phrase to refer to the fall of the Jerusalem temple, the rise of false teachers who claim to come in Christ’s name, wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines, and persecutions. He said, “When you see these things happening, recognize that He is near, right at the door.”

Verse 30 has been one of the most debated passages of the New Testament throughout church history. Failing to maintain the distinction of near events and distant events, there have been many who have come up with all sorts of fantastic explanations of what Jesus meant here. On the surface, it seems to indicate that His return would be in the lifetime of His apostles, and that obviously did not happen. However, if we maintain the distinction between “these things” and “those days”, the things that are near and the things that are distant, the meaning becomes fairly clear. Jesus is saying here that “this generation,” the one which was alive in His day, would see “these things” take place: the fall of the Temple, the rise of false teachers, the wars and rumors of wars, the earthquakes, famines and persecutions. And indeed, they occurred in the lifetime of many of His original followers, particularly around the year 70 AD when the Romans destroyed the Temple. And many of those whom Jesus calls “this generation” did see “these things” take place.

We must remember what Jesus said in vv7-8. Although these things will take place, indeed Jesus says they must take place, they are not yet the end, but the beginning of birth pangs. The birth pangs indicate that delivery will come soon, but perhaps not immediately. So, Jesus says when that first century generation sees these things take place, they must understand them the same way they understand the times by looking at the fig tree. Just as the leaves of the fig tree indicate that summer is near, these signs indicate that He is near. He is right at the door, but has of yet not crossed the threshold. They must remain on alert.

Now, these words were spoken 2,000 years ago. And the events to which He refers by “these things” are events which have already occurred. We are not awaiting the fulfillment of any of the things He indicates here by use of the phrase these things. They happened within a few decades of His death. So, if they indicated to those in the first century that Christ was near, even right at the door, then we who live two millennia later, must be particularly alert, for He is even nearer today than then. And every day that we live, we are one day closer to His coming. We must be alert, for the signs that would precede His coming have already occurred. He is near.

But Jesus does not stop with the foretelling of His nearness. He goes on to speak of the fullness of His coming at the end of all things. And in the second parable of this brief passage, we find the second reason that we must continue to be alert until the end.

II. We must be alert, for He will come suddenly (vv31-37).

Looking afar downstream of human history, the Lord Jesus declares, “Heaven and earth will pass away.” This universe as we know it now will not endure forever. As indicated by the cosmic calamities foretold in verses 24-25, all that we know in the present created order will pass away. The sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, the stars will be falling from heaven and the powers that are in the heavens will be shaken. These words must have really struck Peter, who was one of the four apostles who was with Jesus when He spoke them. We have good reason to believe that Mark is recording the teachings of Peter here in this Gospel, and not only do these words occur here, but in Peter’s own epistle, 2 Peter, we find mention of the passing away of the created order also. Turn to 2 Peter 3 &.

· You notice in vv3-4 that Peter says mockers will come in the last days saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.” In other words, people will give up on the notion that Christ is coming again because they don’t see any signs that the world is going to end anytime soon.

· But Peter goes on to say in v7 that there is coming a day of judgment when the present heavens and earth will be consumed with fire. It may seem like a long time to us. Many generations have come and gone since the Lord first said that heaven and earth will pass away. But notice in v8 that Peter says “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.” God’s calendar is not laid out like ours. We measure out the intervening time to be 2,000 years, but from God’s perspective, it’s only been a couple of days. And why is the Lord delaying the return of Christ and the end of all things? It isn’t because He is slow, as Peter says in v9, but because He is patient, giving humanity every opportunity to turn from their sins in repentance and faith so that we may be saved and not perish eternally.

· Now, make no mistake, he says in v10 that the day of the Lord – that is the day of His return – will come like a thief, and when He comes, the universe will be burned up with an intense heat. Therefore, he asks in v11, “Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be?” We shouldn’t be people who are tightly anchored to the things of this world, but should with all faith and hope be longing for something better that is to come. He says in v13, “But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.”

John, who was also with Jesus when He spoke these words, was given a glorious vision of things to come which he recorded for us in the inspired words of Revelation. And in Revelation 21:1, he says, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away.” But the apostles were not inventing myths and fairy tales for the people of the first century in declaring these things. The destruction of this present order of creation was foretold in the Old Testament as well. Psalm 102 speaks of the heavens and the earth perishing, wearing out like a garment. Isaiah 51:6 also says, “the sky will vanish like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment.” So the words of Jesus and the apostles clearly validate the word of God which had been spoken centuries before. And let no one deceive you, it will happen. Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.” There will come a day when all that we know of this universe will no longer exist, but there will never come a day when the words of Jesus Christ are found to be untrue.

Now, when will all this happen? Jesus says, “Of that day or hour no one knows.” He says the angels in heaven don’t know, and He even says that He, the Son, doesn’t know. Only the Father knows. But, have we not been saying all along that Jesus is God? And if Jesus is God, doesn’t He know all things? How can He be ignorant of this and still be God? Here we must remember that Jesus is fully God, but He is also fully human. In His divine nature, He knows all things, and demonstrates such knowledge on occasion in the Gospels. But Jesus’ humanity bore the same limitations that our humanity bears. As a man, He does not know, and in His Trinitarian role as Son, this knowledge is reserved for the Father alone. So this does not limit His deity or His omniscience, but rather indicates the fullness of His humanity. As Paul says in Philippians 2, although Christ existed in the form of God, He did not cling to His equality with God, but emptied Himself, taking on the form of a servant and the likeness of man. His point here is not to expound upon the mysteries of intertrinitarian functional subordination, but to say that the knowledge of the timing of His return and the end of all things is known only to God, and God has not made such knowledge available to the angels, to the Son, or to humanity.

In 1988, Edgar Whisenant published a book entitled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988. So confident was he that he stated, “Only if the Bible is in error am I wrong.” He sold nearly 5 million copies of that book. It’s out of print now, and available at deep discounts, as are his subsequent books which predicted the return of the Lord in 1989, 1993, and 1994. I ran across another book entitled I Predict 2000 AD. That book is also out of print now, and only available through used booksellers. Throughout history people have tried to predict when the end would come, and they never will be able to. Anytime someone presents a fine sounding argument for why their predicted date of the return of Christ must be correct, realize what they are suggesting: They are proposing to have more information than Jesus about this. He said the angels don’t know, the Son doesn’t know, and no one else knows. Only the Father knows, and He hasn’t told us when, but He has told us that it will happen. His word is His promise. Will He come today? He could. Might He come in 1000 years? He could. We do not know. But we know He is coming, and we know it will be sudden when He comes.

Jesus tells another parable in v34 about a man who goes away on a journey and leaves his servants in charge. He gives each one certain duties, and commands the doorkeeper of his house to stay on the alert. And the master of the house could return at any moment, so it was crucial that each servant be diligent at the task the master left for him, lest he return and find them falling down or sleeping on the job. They must stay alert, for no one knows when the master will return. Jesus says that His coming is going to be like that. He has, as it were, gone away on a journey. Forty days after His resurrection, He ascended into heaven, and He gave His servants a task. In Acts 1, before He ascended, they asked Him, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” But Jesus told His followers, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” Let me paraphrase that: Don’t sit around trying to figure out when I’m coming again. Just know that I am coming. The Father has fixed the time, and it isn’t for you to know. But you have a job to do until I come – You will be My Spirit-empowered witnesses all over the world until I come again.” That is the task that the Master of the house has left us with. And He has told us to be alert. We don’t know when He will come, but He will come suddenly. And when He comes, Jesus says, you don’t want Him to catch you sleeping on the job. We want Him to find us being faithful to the task He left us with: Watching, waiting, worshiping, and witnessing.

How much longer will it be? We don’t know. Could it be today? Yes. Could it be generations later? Yes, it could. All the signs that must precede His coming have taken place. The next event on God’s Calendar is Christ’s return. And when He returns, this created universe will pass away. As I understand the Scriptures, there are only two things in existence today that will outlive the planet: the Word of God and the souls of men. Jesus said His word will not pass away. God has said that His word will endure forever. And human beings will live eternally in heaven or in hell. So, I don’t know of any better use we can make of the time we have remaining than to share this eternal word with the souls of human beings. God has fixed a day when it will all come to an end. We don’t know when it will be. But we know that He is patient, and He is offering humanity every opportunity for repentance that we might be saved. What will you do with the time we have remaining? If you have never turned from sin to trust Jesus Christ to save you, it is a matter of great urgency and eternal significance for you to do that even this day. He died for you, that your sins may be forgiven, and He lives again offering you the sure promise of eternal life if you will place your faith in Him. And if you have, what will you do with the hours, days or years that remain? The Master has given us charge of the affairs of His house – He has given us a task to be His Spirit-empowered witnesses. You can know that your life counts for something eternal by being faithful to that task – sharing His everlasting word with the everlasting souls of people. What He said to them, He says to all, “Be on the alert.” Even ‘til the end.