Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Controversial Ending of Mark

As many of you know, there is some debate among scholars as to how the Gospel of Mark originally ended. Our English Bibles usually indicate the confusion over the originality of the last 12 verses in a footnote. I have spent a couple of months reading over 500 pages and working through the issues and have prepared a very long (38pp) paper on the subject in which I try to carefully explain the issues and weigh the arguments on each side. My intended audience for the paper is the average church goer. The paper's length is due in part to an attemt to carefully explain the issues, all of which can be addressed in a kind of short-hand among scholars. Because of its length, I am reluctant to post it here, but will be happy to attach it to an email and send it to anyone who wants it. Simply comment on this post with your email address (I would encourage you to write your email address out like this: johndoe[at]yahoo[dot]com, so you don't fall victim to spammers who scrounge the web looking for email addresses).

Monday, January 19, 2009

Finding the Strength to Stand (Mark 14:54, 66-75)

Click here for the audio.

On this day in 1895 (January 18), the New York Times carried an article which had previously been printed in the San Francisco Bulletin about a church which was being sued by an architect whom the church had refused to render full payment for services. The dispute involved the architect’s placement of a rooster on the top of the steeple. In conversation with the architect, trustees of the church were told that the reason for the use of the rooster was based on this biblical event in which Peter denied the Lord three times before the rooster crowed. The trustees of the church thought this was an irreverent symbol, and insisted that the rooster be removed. Thus, they refused to pay the architect because of what they perceived as an insult to their congregation, and the lawsuit was spawned.

Throughout Christian history, the rooster has found its way onto the top of many steeples. During the Protestant Reformation, reformed churches in particular topped their spires with roosters. The reason was twofold. First, as the rooster roused people from their slumber announcing the dawn of a new day, roosters on the steeples of reformed churches symbolized the awakening from centuries of slumber in unbiblical church traditions and the dawn of a return to Gospel-centered ministry. Also, it reminded them of Peter’s denials. As the steeple was often the most visible and prominent structure in towns and villages, people would see the rooster and be reminded to stay faithful to Jesus and not deny Him as the apostle had done.

The iconographers of the ancient church often added a rooster to images of Peter. In fact, today a church stands on the very spot where this incident took place which is called, “The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu,” or “The Church of St. Peter and the Crowing of the Cock.” Thus, standing in the minds of most when they think of Peter, is not his preaching on the day of Pentecost, not his epistles from the New Testament, not his influence on the Gospel of Mark, or the boldness with which he endured persecution and even martyrdom, but his three-fold denial of the Lord in the dawning hours of that Friday morning. There is a lesson for us all in this. The ironic fact is that a testimony for Christ takes years to establish, but can be destroyed in a fleeting moment of weakness. And one’s failures will often be remembered much more vividly than one’s successes. Like Peter, each of us is frequently on the receiving end of a barrage of temptations that would spiritually undo us if we submit to them. They may be subtle or severe, they may be public or private, they may be moral, legal, social or in any other realm of life. Some of them will present themselves as major and obvious moments of decision, others will appear to be minor and insignificant. But in each one, we will be faced with the choice of standing firm in our faith or denying the Lord Jesus. And so what may we learn from the example of Peter in this passage that will prevent us from denying the Lord in those moments? Or to put it another way, is there anything in the example of Peter’s failure that will help us find the strength to stand? I believe there are several such lessons.

I. We can stand strong when we stay close to Jesus (v54a)

When we first encounter Peter in this passage, we find that he had followed Jesus “at a distance.” This phrase “at a distance” jumps off the page. Why does one follow another “at a distance”? It is to keep from being spotted or caught up in the activity. His love for Jesus compelled him to not totally abandon Him, but Peter’s love for his own life led him to keep a safe and comfortable distance between himself and the Lord. Where was Peter when the Council was looking for witnesses to testify against Jesus? When he might have spoken a word in His defense, he could not, for he had kept himself at a distance. While we may commend him here for not fleeing altogether, as apparently the rest of disciples had done, this distance enabled him to keep that possibility open for himself. The distance forshadows, and even provides opportunity for the denial that follows. And in verse 68, when the questions began to come his way, notice what direction Peter moves. He moves out onto the porch, even farther away from Jesus.

You and I will never stand strong for Jesus if we merely follow Him at a distance. There are some who are happy to accept the joys that superficial devotion to Christ brings them, but who keep a distance between themselves and the Lord in order to minimize the responsibility and sacrifice that following Him closely would entail. Following Jesus closely may be hazardous to one’s health, one’s career, and one’s social status. In the workplace, one will occasionally be expected to do something or say something which compromises Christian conviction. Follow Him too closely there, and one may find himself out of work. In one’s network of friends, there may be subtle pressure to act a certain way or speak a certain way. After all, one does not want to be known by his or her peers as a fanatic. As long as one keeps a distance between self and Savior, then the difficult decision of sacrificing friendship for faith disappears. And of course we know of those who throughout church history have had the blade of the sword and the barrel of the gun thrust to their heads, and been asked to choose Christ and death, or safety and survival. As long as one follows Christ at a distance, the decision to deny Him remains and open and easy option.

Polycarp, who was the elderly Bishop of Smyrna in the mid-2nd Century, was brought before a Roman proconsul on the charge of being a follower of Christ. Feeling pity for him because of his age, the proconsul urged him to deny Christ and to proclaim that Caesar is Lord. If he would but utter that confession and offer a small sacrifice of incense to Caesar’s statue, he would escape with his life. But Polycarp’s now famous words indicated that he would stand strong. “Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” And for that confession, Polycarp was burned alive at the stake. When they threatened to nail him to the stake, Polycarp said, “Leave me as I am; for He that gives me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile.” And when it appeared that the flames would not harm him, he was stabbed to death.

We recall the horror stories of Columbine, when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris put guns to the heads of their classmates and asked them if they believed in God or in Christ. And we know their stories, that more than one of them said “Yes,” and were killed. We could cite example after example, ancient and modern, of those who endured hardship and horror for the sake of Christ, standing strong when they could have denied the Lord and survived. But in each case, they stood strong because they followed closely. You and I may never have to choose between life and death, but daily we are presented with the choice of a truth or a lie; an action or inaction; righteousness or sin; speech or silence. Underlying every one of these choices is the ultimate reality of standing strong or denying the Lord. And if we will follow the Lord closely in our lives, we can make the right choices in those cases. By faithful and regular exercise of the spiritual disciplines of prayer, the meditation of God’s word, the fellowship of the church, we keep ourselves close to Jesus, and enable ourselves, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to make the decision of preferring His fellowship to our own safety, comfort, and security. When we stay close to Him, we stand strong. But if we, like Peter, are content merely to follow at a distance, then we must not be surprised to find ourselves frequently making decisions that appear to be insignificant at the moment, but which amount to a denial of His Lordship over our lives.

II. We can stand strong as we avoid coziness with the world (v54b)

We’ve seen enough detective movies to have the image in our minds of someone following at a distance. We can imagine a guy in a wide-brimmed hat and a trenchcoat with upturned collar peering around the corner of some back-alley, or crouched low in the bushes peering out with binoculars, or something like that. But that is not what Peter was doing. He followed Jesus at a distance, but he was not hiding in isolation. He was “sitting with the officers and warming himself at the fire.” It was still the time of year when the night-time air could be uncomfortably cool, and a fire would be a welcome comfort. And so we have this ironic juxtaposition of Jesus facing the icy blast of interrogation in the chambers of the high priest, and Peter warming himself by the fire in the courtyard below. And he is seated there. He is not passing through or standing idly by. He has taken a seat, another attempt to provide for comfort. And notice the company he keeps: he is seated with the officers. Who are these officers? In John 18:3, this same Greek word that is used here is used to describe the arrest party that accompanied Judas to seize Jesus; in Mark 14:65, it is used of those who were slapping Jesus in the face. And in their company in the courtyard, we find a disciple of the Lord seated among them and warming himself at their fire. And it appears at least on the surface that Peter is more concerned to maintain his relationship with this crowd than with the Christ.

Now I have said that standing strong involves avoiding coziness with the world. What do I mean? The word “world” has several connotations in Scripture. We find statements such as we have in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world ….” In this context, it is obvious that “world” means the people who inhabit the world. We also find statements like Matthew 24:14, where we read, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world ….” Here, “world” indicates the planet, the entirety of the earth. And then we find statements like John makes in 1 John 2:15: “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” It is obvious that this use of “world” is not the same as the other two, for we must go into all the world and proclaim the message of the Gospel, and we are commanded in Scripture to speak the truth in love. And if anyone who loves the world, in the sense of the people of the world, does not have the love of the Father in him, then how could it be said that God Himself loves the world? No, in cases like we have when John says “Do not love the world,” he is not referring to the planet or the people, but rather what we might call the pursuits of the world. The “world,” in this sense operates on a common way of thinking that is self-centered, materialistic, seeking personal comforts and prosperity. Thus, we are surrounded by people who have been infected with this way of thinking that life amounts to the accumulating of things and the attainment of status. And that flies in the face of the Christian worldview, which says that life is about denying oneself, taking up one’s cross daily and following Christ. It has nowhere been put more succinctly than in the historic Westminster catechism: The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. And to the world’s way of thinking, that is utter nonsense.

Now the Christian is not to withdraw from the people of the world, and live in isolation upon the planet of the world, in order to avoid contamination by the pursuits of the world. Rather Jesus has commissioned us to take the saving Gospel into the world because He loves these people and does not desire that they perish. However, He has also made it clear that though we are to be in the world, we are not of the world. Better to be on trial with Jesus than warming ourselves by the fires of His persecutors! The cozier we try to become with the world, the more we become intoxicated by the smoke from their fires, and the more occasion and temptation we will find to deny our Lord in order to have harmony with those who hate Him. Who here is immune from it? Have we not all found ourselves in that place where we know that we should say something to someone about Christ, but we fear the consequences of it? Have we not all found ourselves wanting to do something in Christ’s name and for His sake, but have wrestled ourselves into complacency as we weight the pros and cons of it. Some years ago, I was talking with a Christian friend who is a professor at a secular university. I had recently heard him publicly deny and argue against a biblical teaching. When I questioned him about that, he confessed to me that he really wanted to believe and teach that doctrine, but he knew that if he did, he would lose the respect of the academic community and perhaps even his job. It is a cozy fire, is it not? But remember the opening words of the Psalms: “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, Nor stand in the path of sinners, Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!” Though walking in that counsel, standing in that path, or sitting in that seat may bring us temporal enjoyment or even some measure of benefit, the blessing of God is to be found elsewhere.

In the warm glow of the fires the world sets before us, it is just easier to make a decision of denial than a declaration of dedication. In denial we warm ourselves by the flames of that fire; in dedication, we may die in the flames in that fire. We must make the decision in advance that this world has nothing for us. This is not home, and from an eternal perspective we can gain no advantage by availing ourselves of this world’s luxuries. We live for someone else, and for somewhere else, and we know that in His presence at that place and time, all the wrongs we have endured will be made right, and anything we ever lost for His sake will be more than compensated for. And if we keep that reality in the forefront of our minds as we interact with the world, we will beware of becoming to cozy with the world’s way of thinking, and we can stand strong for Christ in every challenge.

III. We can stand by taking God’s Word to heart (v72)

Jesus had earlier warned Peter that this would happen. In His divine nature, Jesus had perfect foreknowledge of the events that would take place. He told Peter in v30, “Truly I say to you, that this very night, before a rooster crows twice, you yourself will deny Me three times.” But do you remember how Peter responded to that warning? Did he take it to heart? No, he repeatedly argued with Jesus. Verse 31 tells us that Peter “kept saying insistently, ‘Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You.’” And according to v72 here, apparently Peter had given the words of Jesus no more thought. It wasn’t until the rooster crowed twice that we read that Peter remembered what Jesus had said.

Now this does present somewhat of a dilemma to our understanding. After all, if Jesus said it would happen, then there was no way that it couldn’t happen, right? But that is not the point here. Scholars have debated for centuries over the intricacies of divine foreknowledge and human freedom to make choices. We are not likely to resolve the conflict in the time we have remaining today. The point I want to make here is that in spite of being told by Jesus what would happen, Peter argued with Jesus about it rather than believing Him, and forgot the words that Jesus spoke to him until after the fact. It is almost as if he walked away from the warning still convinced that Jesus didn’t know what He was talking about and having the attitude that we find so commonly in ourselves and others that says, “It won’t happen to me.” But now, he remembers Jesus’ words after coming to the humbling realization that it did happen to him.

We have in our possession a treasure of infinite worth. Each one of us has something that most of the people in the world’s history have not had – we have our own personal copy of the Word of God in our own language. We don’t have to be a scholar of foreign tongues, we don’t have to rely on the opinions of the church hierarchy, we don’t have to travel to the library or the cathedral to see it. We can open it up and read it anytime we want. And when we open it and read it, we find glorious promises made by God to His people that apply to you and me. And we also find strongly worded warnings which are applicable to ourselves as well. The real issue with these words is what we do with them when we close the book. Do we walk away from God’s word in disbelief? Do we arrogantly think that our own ideas are more accurate than what God has said? Do we walk away thinking, “It won’t happen to me.” Do we even remember and reflect on what we have read? Have we taken the word of Christ to heart?

God’s word is like food for the Christian’s soul. I have had the opportunity to know many professional athletes through the years, and from them I have learned about the pre-game meal. In the pre-game meal, these guys will load themselves up with the food that will give them the energy and strength they need to play the game. Certain foods they eat a lot of, certain foods they don’t eat any of. Now, we aren’t going into a game, we are going into life. And in our meal, that time we spend in the Word of God, we are taking into our souls the promises, the declarations, and the warnings of Christ that will strengthen us for the task. But if we walk away and give no further thought to what we have read in the Word, then it is as if we have purged the spiritual nutrients from our system before they had a chance to work in and through us. If we would stand strong in the trials of faith, we must take God’s word to heart.

You and I are faced with opportunities each day when we must make a simple choice: stand strong for Jesus or deny Him. Like we have said, those denials are often not blatant and strongly worded renouncements of Christ, but subtle things – a word spoken or left unspoken here, an action taken or avoided there. Those times have come to all of us, and they will continue to. And we have all failed the Lord repeatedly, and if I understand anything about human nature, I would venture to say that we all will again. So, in closing, I think we must ask the question of how to bounce back from failure. There is only one way to restoration and it is through repentance. Repentance is a change of heart that issues forth in a change of action. It is a return to the Lord in sorrow for our sins, and in a fresh dependence upon His forgiving mercies and His empowering grace. In our text, Peter begins to weep over his sin. Does our sin bring us to tears? Do we see in our sins the very reason for Christ’s death? Do we see in our sins the poison that has been the undoing of the entire human race? Or do we just write them off as little things? Friends, little sins would only need a little Savior. But we have been given a great Savior, God Himself in the Person of Christ, because our sins are great. It is an insult to His nature and His saving act to make little of our sins. Sin should move the child of God to an initial response of weeping, followed by a quick and certain turning back to the Lord in repentance. If it is not quick, then the sin will take root in our hearts and lead us further away from Him. Notice how Peter’s sin began to grow. Initially, it was a rather private conversation with a girl by the fire. But then it moved to a more public denial on the porch in the present of other bystanders. Finally it culminated in a forthright renouncement of Christ accompanied by cursing and swearing. Now, I know those two words are usually associated in my mind with uttering profanity, but that is not the case here. There is almost always an object of cursing when the word is used – something or someone is cursed. Two options exist here. First, it may be that Peter was cursing himself, as if to say, “If I am lying then may I be cursed.” The word anathema, which has the idea of damnation, is at the root of the word used here. Dare I even say this in the pulpit? Grant me the indulgence of saying that Peter may be saying, “I’ll be damned if I know Him.” But it is also a possibility that object of his cursing is Jesus, as if he may be saying, “Curse Him! I do not know Him.” And swearing carries the idea of making a statement under oath. Thus, he solemnly testifies of having no knowledge of Jesus. Now, if we could ask Peter, “Did you intend to go so far as that when you entered the courtyard that night?” he would undoubtedly say no. But we learn from his example that grave and tragic sin is entered into in baby-steps. With each previous denial, he makes the final one more and more of a possibility. Oh, that we would be so sensitive to sin, that when it first rears its ugly head in our lives we would fly to the cross with haste to cast ourselves on Christ’s mercy and grace, lest we let it take us farther than we ever intended to go.

And lastly, let it be said that our failures do not have to be final. As we look ahead in the New Testament, we find Peter being restored by Jesus, filled with the Spirit, boldly proclaiming God’s truth on the day of Pentecost, and throughout the rest of his life. Church tradition indicates that Peter suffered a martyr’s death by crucifixion at the hands of Nero in Rome. His denial is not the last word. Through repentance and restoration He became a powerful individual in the hand of God who left a mark on the church and the world. It has even been suggested by many that the ordeal of Peter’s denial broke him and humbled him to the state where God could pick him and up and put him back together for His greater purposes. So, though it is certain that you and I will experience many failures in our spiritual lives, the question is, will we bounce back? Will we repent, and be restored, and allow God to continue His work in us and use in even greater ways? There is such a thing as falling forward, and it means that when we fall, we learn from our mistakes and move on to a brighter future because of it.

Through God’s grace and the power of His Spirit, there is strength to stand the trials of faith. We learn from Peter’s example in this passage that that strength can be found as stay close to Jesus, as we avoid coziness with this world, and as we take God’s word to heart. It would be my prayer that in my life and yours, we would be committed to doing just that, and trusting God to give us that strength daily. And with the dawn of each new day and the crowing of the rooster, may we not find reason to weep over our failures, but reasons to rejoice in the power of God that works mightily within us.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The True Witness: Mark 14:53-65

Audio available here

The last words that Jesus spoke to His disciples before His ascension into heaven include what we refer to as “The Great Commission.” These words are recorded for us in Acts 1:8, where Jesus says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you shall be My witnesses ….” That word translated “witness” comes from a Greek root that means “to testify.” When we think of witnesses and testimonies, we tend to think of a courtroom, where witnesses are summoned to testify to what they have seen and heard, and what they know to be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And this is what Jesus has commissioned His followers to do in the world: to be witnesses, to testify to what they have seen and heard about Him, and to what they know to be the whole truth about who He is and what He has done.

This same word for “witness” that is used by Jesus in the Great Commission is found throughout this passage. Here we have Jesus on trial, and there are witnesses present and testimonies given in order to produce a verdict. Now, this is hardly what we would call a “fair trial.” The Council was not seeking to find testimonies about Jesus that would enable them to decide if He was guilty or innocent. Rather, v55 tells us that “they kept trying to obtain testimony against Jesus.” Jesus is not afforded the status of innocent until proven guilty. They had already determined the verdict and the sentence. They wanted Him to die, and they were looking for some charge, and some testimony to validate that charge which would justify them putting Him to death. And though v56 tells us that they found many willing to testify, their testimonies were false and inconsistent. Now, in this case, they would have been happy to have a false testimony, but the Jewish law demanded that two or three witnesses must agree to confirm a matter. And the inconsistency of these false witnesses prevented the Council from arriving at their predetermined verdict.

We find ourselves living 2,000 years roughly after the events we read of in this passage. And today, Jesus is still on trial in the court of this world’s opinion. All around us, there are those who are trying to make up their mind about Him, and those who think they have already figured out who He is, and excluded Him from their lives altogether. But we are His witnesses. He does not ask us to consider being His witnesses, He commands us to be His witnesses. And He promises us that we will be His witnesses. The question is whether our lives and our words will present a true or false testimony about Him to the world around us. And who better could we learn from about being a true witness for Christ than Christ Himself? He says of Himself in Revelation 3:14 that He is the faithful and true Witness. So as we seek to be faithful and true witnesses for Him, what can we learn from Him that would help us in that task? There are at least three aspects of the true witness that we see in Jesus here, and which we can emulate as we testify for Him in the world.

I. The True Witness Bases His Testimony on the Word of God (vv60-61)

After trying unsuccessfully to secure sufficient testimony from the throng of false witnesses, the High Priest finally turns his attention to Jesus Himself. Verse 60 says that he came forward and “questioned Jesus.” He had had enough of the inconsistent and distorted opinions of others, and sought the very words of Jesus now. The false witnesses were abundant, but they were just that – false. That was apparent in the fact that they could not even agree among themselves about their testimonies. We have to be careful when we resort to lies, for everyone involved has to make sure they tell the same lies the same way. When testimonies don’t agree, they can’t both be true, and then it comes down to “he said/she said,” and no one can determine who is telling the truth. Contrary testimonies are useless.

In addition to the inconsistency of their testimonies, they were also distorted. Some of them said, “We heard Him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands.’” One problem – Jesus never said this. He said something like it, but not exactly. He did say in Mark 13:2 that not one stone of the temple buildings would be left upon another which will not be torn down. But He neither said that He would destroy the temple, nor that He would rebuild the temple. In that statement, He was speaking prophetically of the destruction of the temple that would occur at the hands of the Romans in 70 AD. More closely related to the charge presented here are His words in John 2:19. There, when the Jews asked Him for a sign that would prove His claims to them, He said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” But notice, first of all, that He did not say that He would destroy the temple. Secondly, John explains to us that He was not talking about the temple of Jerusalem, but “He was speaking of the temple of His body.” The sign would be that when they destroyed His body in His death, He would raise it up again in three days in His resurrection. However they obviously misunderstood this, and now are distorting His words to incriminate Him. But even in this, they couldn’t even agree among themselves what He had actually said. So the High Priest turned to Jesus for answers. Though we have little in this text which is commendable about the attitude and actions of the High Priest, we can say that he did at least one thing right – he sought to hear directly from Jesus about the matter.

As we witness for Christ today, we can point our friends directly to the source as well by sharing with them the very Word of God found in the pages of Scripture. There are plenty of opinions circulating about Jesus in our culture. The airwaves and bookshelves are filled with people’s ideas about who He is and what He has done. But like the witnesses in Caiphas’ courtyard, these testimonies are distorted and inconsistent and amount to a cumulative force of worthless false testimony. Jesus simply cannot be what everyone in the world thinks or wants Him to be. If people are left to figure Jesus out based on popular books or the talk radio and TV shows, they will be more confused than ever about Him. But we do not have to rely on these speculative conjectures. We have the sure Word of God that we can share with people. We can share with them the very words which Jesus spoke about Himself, words which God declared about Himself to His people, and words which the eyewitnesses of Christ’s life and ministry have left us about Him. No one needs more opinion, more speculation, more distortions and inconsistent theories. People today need truth! And they need it most importantly when it comes to knowing Jesus. And the only source of truth about Him is the Bible. We must open the Scriptures and let Jesus Himself speak through His word to their hearts. God has made a radical promise about His Word. He said in Isaiah 55:11 that when His word goes out, it will not return to Him empty without accomplishing His desired purposes. We can believe that promise, and speak His word carefully and confidently, knowing that as we do, we are putting people into direct contact with the liberating truth that can save them. The true witness bases His testimony on the Word of God.

II. The True Witness Centers His Testimony on the Person of Jesus (vv61-62)

You notice that the High Priest asks Jesus two sets of questions. First, he asks, “Do You not answer? What is it that these men are testifying against You?” And secondly he asks, “Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” By using the title Blessed One, the priest was using a common Jewish expression of replacing the name of God with an equivalent title in a display of pseudo-piety and reverence for the sacred Name. It means, “Are you the Christ (or Messiah), the Son of God?” And Jesus answers the latter, but not the former. In doing so, He demonstrates His infinite wisdom. Jesus knew that anything He said in response to the first matter would only be further distorted and turned back against Him, so He kept His silence. In Isaiah 53:7, the prophet spoke of the Messiah saying, “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth.” But then there are questions which bear directly upon who He is which must be answered. Jesus could not let this question go unanswered. He must declare openly before the Council that indeed, He is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. And, using Scripture from the Psalms and from Daniel, He explains the implications of His identity. He refers to Psalm 110:1 as He says, “You shall see THE SON OF MAN SITTING AT THE RIGHT HAND OF POWER,” and to Daniel 7:13 as He says, “AND COMING WITH THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN.”

Jesus centers His testimony on who He is and what He has come to do for humanity. In response the question, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?”, Jesus said, “I am.” In affirming that He is the Son of God, He is making a direct claim about His divine nature. The title “Son of God” is easily misunderstood, for people often assume that He is God’s son in the same or similar way that all humanity or particularly all Christians can be spoken of as sons and daughters of God. Also, the title often leads people to believe that, as God’s Son, Jesus is something less than God. I once conducted a survey of long time members of a Baptist church in which I asked them, “Is Jesus God?” and provided them two check-boxes to choose from: “Yes” and “No.” Several of them wrote in a third option: “He is the Son of God.” But when Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, He was claiming to be coequal, of the same divine nature, as God. While it is possible that when Jesus said, “I AM,” here that He was taking upon Himself the divine covenant name of God by which He revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush, “Son of God” was certainly a title that indicated that He was God in human form. This one title expresses succinctly and accurately that He is fully God and fully man. Not half-and-half, not 60/40 or 90/10, but all-and-all; fully God, fully man. And the people of Jesus’ day understood this. For instance, here the High Priest declares that Jesus has committed blasphemy. The only way this charge could be maintained was that if Jesus had cursed God’s name (which He had not done), or ascribed God’s honor to Himself or equated Himself with God (which He had done). Only here, it is actually not blasphemy, contrary to Caiphas’ judgment, because it just so happens to be true. So Jesus makes a very clear statement about His divine nature and His human nature.

He also makes a clear statement about His mission. In affirming that He is the Christ, the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew concept of Messiah, He was declaring that He had come to fulfill God’s promises and accomplish God’s purposes of salvation. While many misunderstood what kind of Messiah they should expect, the Scriptures had foretold that He would come and save humanity from sin through His own suffering. Had they understood the Old Testament, the people would have recognized the Messianic mission of Jesus. As it stood, though, they did not believe He was the Messiah because He did not do what they thought the Messiah would do – namely, vanquish their earthly oppressors, the power of Rome. But Jesus had come to deliver all of humanity from an even greater oppressor: sin and Satan. And He would do it through His won sufferings in humanity’s place, and would be vindicated by His Father through His resurrection and ascension. As Peter indicates in 1 Peter 1:10-11, the Prophets knew about the salvation that was to come, as well as the sufferings and the glory that the Messiah would experience. The sufferings were under way in the events leading up to the cross. The glory was yet to come. But come it would as He conquered death through His resurrection and ascended bodily into heaven where He was seated at the right hand of the Father (as Psalm 110 indicated), and that glory will be made manifest once more when He comes again, coming with the clouds of Heaven (as Daniel 7:13 indicated), to consummate His eternal Kingdom.

Like Jesus, we must use wisdom in responding to the questions that come our way. We do not have to feel compelled to answer every question that others ask or address every subject of human curiousity. We cannot let our witness be diverted away from its central focus on the person of Jesus Christ. It is OK to say to people, “I don’t know,” or “That is off the subject,” or even in some cases to not respond at all, just as Jesus did with the first set of questions the High Priest asked Him here. But when the subject turns to who Jesus is and what He has done and will do in the future, we cannot be silent. If we would be true witnesses for Him, then from His own example we learn to keep the discussion centered on His divine and human nature, His messianic mission of salvation from sin in His death on the cross, and His glorious resurrection and second coming. I had a professor say once that the closer we stay to the trunk of the tree, the less our chances of getting out on a limb. And the further away we get from the nature and mission of Jesus in our witness, the further out on a limb we are. The true witness keeps it centered right there – on the person and work of Jesus Christ.

III. The True Witness Speaks the Truth at All Costs (vv63-65)

Jesus Christ answered Caiphas’ question knowing what the outcome would be. He knew that declaring Himself to be the Messianic Son of God would lead to His death. He knew that their hard hearts would not turn. In saying, “I am,” Jesus willingly embraces the verdict of blasphemy and the sentence of death. He was falsely condemned, publicly shamed, spit upon, beaten, slapped, and ultimately killed. And He opens Himself to the mockery and the torture, but the One who calls Himself the faithful and true witness testifies to the truth, knowing what will come, and knowing ultimately that God is in control of what comes.

You put any other individual in human history in His place there, and the story could easily have a different outcome. Anyone else there may continue to hold his tongue, may refuse to answer, or may offer some delicately worded political response that was less than forthright, but would keep him out of trouble. Most Americans would want to plead the Fifth Amendment, which protects us from self-incrimination. But Jesus was not afforded that right, and if He had been, He would have forfeited it in exchange for speaking the truth. As you and I are faced with opportunities to testify for Jesus, we will also face temptation to tell people what we think they want to hear, or soft-sell the gospel in more humanly acceptable terms. But that temptation must be resisted with all fortitude! We have no right to tinker with the message or to seek to persuade people with half-truths. The full truth may be – NO, it WILL BE – offensive to many. The Bible promises us that. But we must speak the full truth anyway. The truth will cost us relationships, it will bring us hardships, it will force us to make hard choices. In some parts of the world today it will cost Christ’s followers their lives. This doesn’t mean that we proclaim the truth in insensitive ways, that we intentionally seek to offend people, or that we foolishly look to start trouble. We are following Jesus’ example, and Jesus was not a jerk about the truth. Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:15 that we are to speak the truth in love. We aren’t looking for a fight or seeking martyrdom, but we know that the truth will often spark controversy. No one will ever face what Jesus faced. Yet, even knowing what would transpire when He spoke the truth, He spoke it anyway and entrusted Himself to His Father with the outcome. Like Him, the true witness speaks the truth at all costs, knowing that ultimately God is in control and will accomplish His purposes when the truth is declared.

Here in the greatest travesty of justice in human history, the God of the universe incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ was tried, convicted, sentenced and tortured. But we know the rest of the story. We know that He who humbled Himself to death on the cross was vindicated in His resurrection, having accomplished in His death the redemption of humanity from sin. The sufferings He endured did not prevent God’s purposes from being secured, but in fact produced the fulfillment of those purposes. And in the eyes of many in the world today, Jesus is still on trial. The evidence is being weighed in their hearts and minds as they consider what they will do with this One who is called Jesus. And you and I have been called into the dock to bear testimony as witnesses. We have been commissioned by Jesus to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God. And He has promised His help in the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Only one question remains: Will we be found as true witnesses? Will we base our testimony on the authority of God’s Word, or will we entertain half-truths, distortions, opinions and speculations? Will we center our conversation on the Person of Jesus, or will we be distracted by meaningless and baseless arguments about insignificant matters? Will we speak the truth in love at all costs, or will we alter the message in hopes of making the message more socially acceptable? May the One who calls Himself the faithful and true Witness find us following in His own example as truthful witnesses to Him.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Seminary Extension Course: How to Understand the Bible

I will be teaching an introductory course in Biblical Hermeneutics (Interpretation) in Seminary Extension on Tuesday nights (6:30-9:15) from February 17 to May 26 (with a week off for Easter). The class will meet at Immanuel Baptist Church(2432 High Point Rd., Greensboro, NC 27403, room number TBD).

The Catalog description of this course is:
BB3100 How to Understand the Bible
An introduction to the doctrinal, historical, and literary nature of the Bible and other general questions involved in reading the Bible with understanding. The course also deals with the authority, purpose, and message of the Bible; the history reflected in the Old Testament; and principles of biblical interpretation.

Textbooks are listed below. Prospective students should not buy the books in advance, for they are included in the cost of registration:

Registration for the course is $90 and includes three textbooks (Valued at $60) and a student guide. Students may take the course for 3 hours of credit or audit the course (the cost is the same). Please call the Piedmont Baptist Association at 336.275.7651 by February 6 to register.

This course has been evaluated by the American Council on Education (ACE) College Credit Recommendation Service and approved for three hours of credit. Individual schools have their own transfer policies, so students should check with the registrar of their transferring school to determine if these credits will be accepted. For more information on accreditation and transfer credits, see and

Please comment here, or call Immanuel Baptist Church (336-299-1751) or the Piedmont Baptist Association for more information. When commenting on the blog, be sure to include an email address where we can send the response.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Misunderstanding Jesus: Mark 14:43-52

Audio available here

Throughout human history, I suppose that no other individual has been the subject of so much study, research, investigation, and inquiry than the person of Jesus Christ. More than any world leader, more than any military hero, more than any philosopher, scientist, or artist, Jesus has been the subject of careful and thorough scrutiny for some two millennia. If one considers the study that went into the Messianic promises of the Old Testament prior to His coming, that timeline could be stretched for at least two more millennia. Yet for all the hours and ink that have been spent trying to figure out Jesus of Nazareth, it is probably fair to say that no other individual has ever been so misunderstood as He. He was misunderstood by many before He came, He was misunderstood by many while He walked among us, and He is misunderstood by many today. And on that dreary night in Gethsemane, several of the various ways in which He has been misunderstood are seen in the various cast of characters that take the stage in this narrative. And the ways in which these have misunderstood Him are the same ways that many misunderstand Him today.

I. Jesus is misunderstood by self-seeking betrayers (vv43-45)

Of the multitude of people that this narrative encompasses, only two are named: Jesus and Judas. At its roots, this is a story about these two. Judas had gone to conspire with the chief priests on handing Jesus over to them. And we were told in Mark 14:11 that he began seeking how to betray Him at an opportune time. During the Passover meal, when Jesus announced His awareness of the betrayal plot, it appeared to Judas that the time had come. The iron was hot and ready to strike. The other gospels indicate to us that, at some point during the supper, Judas had left the company of Jesus and the disciples and went out to trigger the prearranged arrest party. And he comes now in the dark of night to the location where he knew Jesus would be, and plants a kiss on the Lord. The word for kiss here is intensified, indicating that Judas made an elaborate show out of this kiss. While appearing to lavish affection on Jesus, in reality, he was pointing Him to the arrest party by a prearranged sign.

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.” Satan appealed to some internal desire in Judas to lure him into this act. What kind of desire was it? While we are not told specifically, we can induce a possible factor from the information we are told in the text. First, we know from earlier in Mark 14 that Judas went out to make this deal with the priests following the lavish act of the woman who poured out the perfume on Jesus. That perfume had an estimated value of approximately one year’s salary for the average laborer in that day. Secondly, we are told in John 12 that Judas protested against the woman’s action, insisting that it was a waste, and that the perfume could have been sold and given to the poor. But John also tells us that “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.” So, Judas was the treasurer of the disciples, and was secretly embezzling money from their funds, therefore, he was only thinking of how much of that money he might have been able to take for himself. Thirdly, we are also told in Mark 14:11 that the priests promised to give Judas money for the inside information that would lead to their capture of Jesus. Now from all of this, we can reasonably suggest that Satan was appealing to the self-serving greed of Judas. He was content to follow Jesus so long as he could skim a little personal profit off the top, but when following Jesus no longer produced a personal profit, Judas began seeking a way to profit by betraying Him. He misunderstood Jesus as being a means to his ends, and when his ends were no longer being served by Jesus, he began to find other means to those ends, even at the cost of handing Jesus over to die.

While there can only be one Judas Iscariot, and his act of betrayal is much more severe than any other that ever has or ever will be committed, we find that there are those who commit similar, albeit smaller, acts of betrayal still. There are those who find that being involved in a church opens up doors of social networking and business relationships with others in the church, or that calling themselves Christians gives them an advantage in the marketplace. I can’t tell you the number of times over the years that I have had to confront individuals who sought to exploit the fellowship of the church by recruiting others into pyramid marketing programs. Then are those who have been persuaded by false teachers into believing that following Jesus will make them wealthy. These and others like them misunderstand that following Jesus is not about having my bank account enlarged or my portfolio expanded. It is not about making this life more luxurious or comfortable. Following Jesus is about the denial of self, not the gratification of self. But these have used Jesus as a means to their own ends, and when those ends are no longer satisfied by Jesus, they conveniently turn away from Jesus and seek another angle toward furthering their own agendas. They are self-serving, which is a monumental misunderstanding of Jesus and His message and mission.

II. Jesus is misunderstood by intimidated oppressors (vv48-49)

Jesus says in v48, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest Me, as you would against a robber?” The Greek word rendered robber is the same word that is used to describe the two men who were crucified with Jesus. It can also mean “revolutionary,” and is used to describe Barabbas, who was charged with murder during an insurrection. Thus the NIV renders this verse: Am I leading a rebellion," said Jesus, "that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? And it would appear from the details given to us of this arrest party that those who sought to oppress Jesus indeed considered Him to be an intimidating threat and a revolutionary leader. Judas has not come to Jesus with a renegade gang of street fighters. We read in v43 that he has come with an entourage that has been assembled by the Sanhedrin – the Jewish ruling council that consists of the chief priests, scribes and elders. And this entourage is armed to the teeth with swords and clubs, a violation of the Jewish law to put aside weapons on the Sabbath and special occasions such as Passover. John’s gospel indicates that this group includes a cohort and a tribune. These are Roman military terms. A cohort would be somewhere between 600 and 1,000 armed soldiers, and a tribune is a commander over a thousand soldiers. Even being conservative with the estimate, it is safe to say that hundreds of armed personnel have been dispatched by the Sanhedrin to accompany Judas for the arrest of Jesus. This is a much stronger force than would be deployed to catch a simple thief. And they have not come to take Him publicly in broad daylight, as they have had ample opportunity to do. All week long Jesus has been in and out of the Temple, giving plenty of chances for them to seize Him. But they have come at night, and suited for battle, to the dark and private confines of His encampment on the Mount of Olives. We have to wonder just what they expected was going to happen! They were certainly prepared for a strong resistance. The authorities have determined that Jesus is a threat to national security.
This indicates that the Sanhedrin had misunderstood Jesus.

Though Jesus made it clear that He had come to establish a new Kingdom, He had not come to overthrow any political regimes or earthly kingdoms. Though this is what many had expected and even hoped that the Messiah would do when He came, this was not His mission. In fact, these goals were too low for Jesus. His kingdom would be established not be established with the weapons of earthly warfare nor would it be seated upon an earthly throne, but rather His Kingdom would be established in the hearts of human beings as the truth He proclaimed liberated them from the bondage of sin and Satan. But the Sanhedrin were so caught up in their own power, that they could not receive this message. The popularity of Jesus among the common people threatened their security and led them to take excessive measures to eliminate the threat.

It seems that in our own day, Jesus is once again threatening the powers that be. Across the world, governments are enacting stricter controls on religious freedoms in fear that a widespread movement of Christianity will undermine the strongholds that tyrants and oppressive regimes exercise over their lands. Weekly, and even daily, I receive news from around the world of churches burned, Christians tortured and killed, and other unspeakable atrocities that are committed by armed militias, some working independently and others sanctioned by the government. In our own nation, the freedoms that we have long cherished are evaporating as Christians find themselves more and more restricted from speaking openly about their faith in the workplace and marketplace. The steady stream of literature being published by those who call themselves “the new atheists” attack Christianity with outlandish claims, even blaming all the evils of the world on Christianity and accusing those who religiously educate their children of child abuse. Do they stop to consider what the world would be like if Christianity had been absent from world history? Have they considered the work of Christians in establishing schools (the very schools at which many of these new atheists teach!), hospitals, orphanages, and other social ministries? Have they considered the impact of the Christian worldview on human rights and the rise of democracy? Have they considered the lives transformed for the good by the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? No, they only consider the Christian message a threat to their monopoly on the intelligentsia of our day. They have come out with pen and paper rather than swords and clubs, but with the same hellbent animosity with which the arrest party came to the garden to seize Jesus. Like that armed delegation of the Sanhedrin, they have misunderstood Jesus, His mission and His message.

III. Jesus is misunderstood by violent defenders (v47)

This passage is not a case of the good guys vs. the bad guys. Even those who would be “good guys” in this text are also guilty of misunderstanding Jesus. One of the disciples takes up arms to fight back against this crowd. We have to do some comparative readings in the other gospels to make more sense of this account for Mark’s details are scarce. Let’s turn to Luke 22:36 &. Here Jesus had told the disciples that the time had come that whoever has no sword should sell his coat and buy one. The meaning of this statement is debated among scholars, but the consensus seems to be that Jesus was speaking figuratively, indicating that the days ahead would be filled with difficulty. When the disciples told Jesus in v38 that they had two swords among them, Jesus said, “It is enough.” That statement is also debated, with some interpreting Him to mean that two will suffice, and others interpreting Him to mean that they have misunderstood what He said, and the conversation is over. “That’s enough of that kind of talk!” or something would be intended. Either way we interpret His words, “It is enough”, we can see that He is obviously NOT calling the disciples to armed resistance, for two swords would hardly defend the whole group. But apparently, they have brought these swords with them into the garden. Luke goes on to tell us in vv49-51 that when the militia encompassed Jesus and His disciples, they began to ask if they should strike with the sword, and before He could answer, one of them had already severed the ear of the high priest’s servant. And Jesus rebuked the disciple and said, “Stop! No more of this!” Matthew 26 gives us more of what Jesus said to the sword-wielding disciple. He said, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” John tells us that the servant’s name was Malchus, and that it was Peter who did this. It seems that Peter is still inclined to speak and act before thinking or consulting with Jesus about his actions first. And Luke tells us that Jesus immediately touched the ear of this servant and healed him. So rather than fighting back, rather than condoning the violence of His disciple, Jesus heals one of those who have come to take Him away to death! Malchus’ ear stands as a reminder to us that Jesus will not have His followers take up arms in His defense. He has not come to destroy Malchus or anyone else, but to save them. And in touching his ear to heal him, Jesus demonstrates that His mode of operation is grace, not warfare. But Peter and countless others who have called themselves followers of Jesus have misunderstood Him, and many have taken to violence to defend and advance the faith, contrary to the very nature of Jesus.

The name of Jesus has been foolishly attached to crusades and violent episodes in many embarrassing episodes of Christian history. These events are frequently recounted to us by nonbelievers who would characterize Jesus and His movement by the misguided actions of those who claimed to follow Him. In the last several decades there have been high profile incidents of so-called Christian groups who have stockpiled weapons in barricaded compounds or carried out acts of violence against abortion clinics and other institutions which stand for the things we oppose. But these actions do not represent Christ! Christ says, “Put away the sword!” and He even extends grace toward those who would come against Him. Christianity has become so deeply stained by the ways of the world that we often proudly assert a militant disposition and throw around ridiculous slogans at which the world takes rightful offense. We have so severely misunderstood the way of the Master – the way of nonviolent resistance, the way of peace, the way of civil disobedience – that those like the Mennonites who continue to hold fast to these biblical ideals are often ridiculed by other Christians as being overly na├»ve. What an ironic development! The Apostle Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 10:4-5 that our weapons are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses, and those fortresses are not military compounds, but rather Paul says, they are “speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” In Ephesians 6, he tells us that the sword of the Spirit is the Word of God. We defend and advance the Christian faith by sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with a lost and dying world in hopes that they would be saved!

Jesus told Peter in Matthew 26, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels? How then will the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must happen this way?” You see, when Peter, or any of us, resort to violence in the name of Jesus, we minimalize the power and sovereignty of God. God is in control of the events of Gethsemane, and He is in control of every other event in the world. He has told us what we are to do – we are to be His witnesses, proclaiming His truth in love to the world – and if stronger action is necessary, then God Himself will enact it. As for us, we must be true to the message and the mission of Jesus, come what may, and leave the rest to God, who is more aware, more able, and more just and gracious in His dealings with humanity than we will be. When violence occurs in the name of Jesus, there has been a misunderstanding of who He is, what He has said, and what He has come to do for the world.

IV. Jesus is misunderstood by casual followers (vv51-52)

This passage is a showcase of strange individuals. We have the one who betrays with a kiss; we have the armed posse come against the Prince of Peace; we have the ear-slicing disciple; and now we have even a streaker. Unlike the sword-wielding disciple and the earless servant of the high priest, we are not helped here by looking at other gospels. This incident is recorded only in Mark. We have no idea who this is. It has been suggested by many that it is Mark himself, who inserts this personal recollection into the account. While that is entirely possible, we cannot say for certain. From the description of his linen sheet, we can infer that he has come out from his home where he was sleeping. This was either his bed-sheet, or else a sleeping garment. And being described as a linen sheet, we can also infer that this was a wealthy individual, for linen was a costly fabric in that day. Aside from this, he is mysterious. We don’t know who he is, or why he was there. But we are told that he was following Jesus. Was he a disciple? Was he a curious onlooker? We do not know. But when following Jesus became dangerous for him, he left his bedsheet and his dignity in the hands of the militia and fled naked from the scene.

While we want to be careful not to read too much into this rather obscure recollection here, the presence of this one is sufficient to remind us that the life of faith is not a casual endeavor. It is not to be undertaken in one’s pajamas. To publicly identify oneself with Jesus is not a pass to a pleasure-filled life of comfort and peace. While in our society, being a follower of Jesus is not always viewed negatively, in most of the world for most of history, to follow Jesus has been to invite trouble upon oneself. There is a cost of discipleship, and that cost is often suffering. We keep our eyes focused on the pleasures of heaven, because often the pleasures of earth will be forfeited for the follower of Jesus. And if we are not prepared to endure the hardships that following Jesus will often entail, then we have misunderstood him.

The image of the naked young man fleeing the scene puts a vivid image in our minds of a reality that would otherwise be merely cold and impersonal data on paper. You see, in v50 we read that “they all left Him and fled.” Matthew left Him, John left Him, James left Him, Andrew and Peter left Him. They all left Him and fled, just as Jesus had said in v27. All shared the last supper with Him; all pledged to die with Him; and when the chaos erupted, all abandoned Him. And the naked runner in the streets warns us all that difficulties will come, and when they do, we will have a choice to make. We will either endure the hardship with Jesus, or else we will flee. Though we may keep our clothing intact, we will be stripped of our testimony and equally shamed in that moment should we abandon Him in the difficulties we encounter as His followers. If we get going when the going gets tough, then we have misunderstood Him and what it means to be His follower.

There are many things in the world that we will never understand. Fortunately, for most of us, there are many things we don’t need to understand. There are many things about which we may be mistaken which are of no great importance. Most of us will be just fine in life without a mental grasp of quantum physics, calculus, mechanical engineering, or the life cycle of garden slugs. But if we misunderstand Jesus, then when this life is over and we stand on the threshold of eternity, it will matter very little what else we may have ever understood. If we have found Jesus to be a convenient means to our self-centered ambitions in life, then we need to quickly repent before we find ourselves turning our backs on Him when He ceases to provide for our comforts and luxuries. If we have disregarded Jesus with contempt because we deem Him to be a threat to our own power, then we have forsaken the opportunity to be saved and are left without help and hope. If we have put a militant face on our Christianity and sought to advance or defend the name of Jesus without regard for the ways of Jesus, then we have trapped ourselves in a contradiction that we must escape through repentance and rededication to the Christ of Scripture. And if we have failed to prepare ourselves for the hardship that we may have to endure for His name’s sake, then we must begin to consider the cost of being His disciple. Living for Christ in this fallen world is not going to get easier as time goes by, and the day will likely come when we will choose to maintain our security or our testimony, being unable to hold fast to both. Ultimately, when it is all said and done, eternity is staked on our understanding of Jesus, His message and His mission. That is one thing we don’t want to mistaken about.