Mark 2:13-14 – As Jesus Passed By

“Then He went out again by the sea; and all the multitude came to Him, and He taught them. As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ So he arose and followed Him.” (verse 13-14, NKJV)

As Jesus passed by… This line strikes me so strongly. We all pass by a thousand things each day that we never take a single moment’s notice of, don’t we? People, interactions, opportunities… We simply “pass by.” But when Jesus passes by, He sees things. He saw Levi “sitting at the tax office.” Any one of us would have glanced Levi’s way and have simply muttered to ourselves, “What a hopeless sell-out.” But when Jesus saw Levi, He saw a heart hungering for acceptance and love. Aren’t we so thankful that when Jesus passes by us, He looks our way, too?

In Mark’s Gospel, Christ’s call to discipleship and Levi’s immediate response of obedience is abrupt and unexpected. The sudden encounter is one which even leaves us a bit uncomfortable perhaps. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflects on the abruptness of this interaction:

The call of Jesus goes forth and is at once followed by the response of obedience… How could the call immediately evoke obedience? The story is a stumbling-block for the natural reason, and it is no wonder that frantic attempts have been made to separate the two events… Thus we get the stupid question: Surely, the publican must have known Jesus before, and the previous acquaintance explains his readiness to hear the Master’s call. Unfortunately our text is ruthlessly silent in this point, and in fact it regards the immediate sequence of call and response as a matter of crucial importance. It displays not the slightest interest in the psychological reasons for a man’s religious decisions. And why? For the simple reason that the cause behind the immediate following of call by response is Jesus Christ himself. It is Jesus who calls, and because it is Jesus, Levi follows at once. This encounter is a testimony to the absolute, direct, and unaccountable authority of Jesus… Jesus summons men to follow him not as a teacher of a pattern of the good life, but as the Christ, the Son of God. In this short text, Jesus Christ and his claim are proclaimed to men. Not a word of praise is given to the disciple for his decision for Christ. We are not expected to contemplate the disciple, but only him who calls, and his absolute authority. According to our text, there is no road to faith or discipleship, no other road – only obedience to the call of Jesus.  (Bonhoeffer, Discipleship)

An unexpected call, and an immediate response… You know, I used to look at this story and shudder in awe at the magnitude of Levi-Matthew’s sacrifice. To be honest, I always found the account intimidating. Would I have been able to walk away from everything known and comfortable in my world? Levi’s decision was an irreversible one! Theologian William Barclay points out:

Of all the disciples Matthew gave up most. He literally left all to follow Jesus. Peter and Andrew, James and John could go back to the boats. There were always fish to catch and always the old trade to which to return; but Matthew burned his bridges completely. With one action, in one moment of time, by one swift decision he had put himself out of his job forever, for having left his tax-collector’s job, he would never get it back. It takes a big man to make a big decision, and yet some time in every life there comes the moment to decide. (Barclay, William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible, Mark)

But, you know what, as I reflect on this passage more fully, I think I now understand why Levi could and would immediately choose to follow the call. Through his whole life, Levi-Matthew had struggled to find meaning and purpose, to feel like he belonged somewhere. And now, here was that opportunity standing before him, in the form of a Person named Jesus. Levi was being offered an invitation to be a part of a community, a family. He was being called into an eternal friendship with the very Son of God. As Bonheoffer concludes, “At the call, Levi leaves all that he has – but not because he thinks he might be doing something worth while, but simply for the sake of the call. Otherwise he cannot follow in the steps of Jesus… When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person.”

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose. ~Jim Elliot

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Mark 2:1-12 – Healing Forgiveness

After a brief preaching circuit around the Galilean region, Jesus returns to his hometown. Mark 2 picks up the account:

When Jesus returned to Capernaum several days later, the news spread quickly that he was back home. Soon the house where he was staying was so packed with visitors that there was no more room, even outside the door. While he was preaching God’s word to them, four men arrived carrying a paralyzed man on a mat. They couldn’t bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, so they dug a hole through the roof above his head. Then they lowered the man on his mat, right down in front of Jesus. (Mark 2:1-4, NLT)

Before we go any further, I can’t help but pause here and reflect on one line in this passage that I find particularly disturbing: “They couldn’t bring him to Jesus because of the crowd” (verse 4, NLT). We like to think of ourselves as “the crowd around Jesus,” don’t we? We’re Christians, we’re church-goers, we’re part of the “in group.” But have we ever stopped to think about how we might sometimes actually be a hindrance for others trying to get to Jesus? Can’t we so easily discourage seekers by the way we judge others in our churches? Or perhaps by the way we criticize or gossip about other believers? What about when we try to make others follow all of our self-imposed rules once they get into our churches? (“You can’t be baptized until…”) How many times have sincere seekers been turned away or discouraged from coming to Jesus by the church-going crowd around Jesus? A sobering thought.

But, I love how the rest of the story goes. I like to imagine it played out something like this:

Perched from his seat in the center of the room, Jesus teaches to the eager crowd. They’re most likely in Peter’s house. Closest around Jesus are Peter, Andrew, James, and John, each posturing themselves as protective body guards. They’re keeping an eye out, in case anyone tries any “funny business,” you know. In the middle of Jesus’ illustration, an awful scraping and clattering noise directly above interrupts the discussion. Suddenly, a torrent of straw and dust and mud flakes rain down on the heads of Jesus and the disciples. What could possibly be going on? Peter gives a shout of indignation and starts for the back portico door—that’s his roof after all! But Jesus quickly reaches out and gently grabs a hold of Peter. Then, looking up with a quizzical smile, Jesus waits to see what will happen next… Suddenly, four heads pop over the gaping hole in the ceiling. A moment later, the heads disappear and grunts of lifting and staining can be heard. The next thing everyone knows, a pallet of some kind is being lowered with ropes through the opening. (Everyone is still too surprised to say anything!) Once the load reaches eye level, a gasp ripples across the room. There’s a man on the pallet! Slowly, the bed is lowered all the way to the floor, directly in front of the Teacher. All eyes are on Jesus now. The crowd breathlessly waits to see what Jesus will do. Jesus looks intently at the paralyzed man for a long while. He then gazes up at the four heads popping through the roof. Finally, resting His eyes back on the young man, Jesus says with a loving smile: “My child, your sins are forgiven” (verse 5, NLT).

“Uh, Jesus…” We think to ourselves. “Are you sure you got that right? Isn’t this man’s plight rather obvious? Don’t you think the poor guy would rather just be able to walk?”  But no, Jesus knows exactly what’s going on in this man’s mind and heart! What kind of physical experience can possibly compare with the spiritual, emotional peace that comes from a forgiven soul? Christ’s words fall like music on the paralytic’s ears…

The burden of despair rolls from the sick man’s soul; the peace of forgiveness rests upon his spirit, and shines out upon his countenance. His physical pain is gone, and his whole being is transformed. The helpless paralytic is healed! the guilty sinner is pardoned!

In simple faith he accepted the words of Jesus as the boon of new life. He urged no further request, but lay in blissful silence, too happy for words. The light of heaven irradiated his countenance, and the people looked with awe upon the scene. (Desire of Ages, p. 268)

Yet not everyone can appreciate the beauty of the moment. From this point in Mark’s gospel, we see the first flicker of the mounting controversy between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders: “But some of the teachers of religious law who were sitting there thought to themselves, ‘What is he saying? This is blasphemy! Only God can forgive sins!’” (vs. 4-6, NLT) How sad. These so-called spiritual authorities have become so calloused and jaded that they can’t even sympathize with the paralytic’s needs. Their jealousy of Jesus’ popularity has been growing by this point and so they immediately jump on an opportunity upon which they can criticize Jesus. But I just love how Jesus responds to the situation:

But immediately, when Jesus perceived in His spirit that they reasoned thus within themselves, He said to them, “Why do you reason about these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise, take up your bed and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the paralytic, 11 “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” 12 Immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went out in the presence of them all, so that all were amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!” (Mark 2:6-12, NKJV)

With one stunning miracle, Jesus traps the scribes in their own logic! As theologian William Barclay writes: “On their own stated beliefs the man could not be cured, unless he was forgiven. He was cured, therefore he was forgiven. Therefore Jesus’ claim to forgive sin must be true.”

As Mark’s “first time readers,” we learn a couple of important points from this story about the life and ministry of Jesus. Number one, we see for the first time, that Jesus not only heals sick people and cleanses lepers, but He also forgives sins! We’re not just dealing with a powerful prophet anymore! Next, we see Jesus affirm faith as an integral part of the healing/forgiving process. Finally, we begin to see the forebodings of an irreparable rift between Jesus and the religious leaders. Where is all of this going to lead from here? 

Before we wrap up today’s study, however, I’d like to highlight a few more life-application points for us to reflect on throughout the rest of the day:

  • Notice that after the crowd hinders the paralytic from being brought to Jesus, the four men must tear through the roof to make a way to Jesus. The thought occurs to me: Are these some things in my life I might need to tear down to ensure that I am never a hindrance for others coming to Jesus? Are there some practices of our churches that we might need to deconstruct in order to foster a better community of acceptance and love for those who seek Jesus?
  • Verse 5 says: “When Jesus saw their faith,” then He spoke to the paralytic… So, whose faith are we talking about here? Was it the faith of the four friends or the faith of the paralytic? I believe it’s both! The paralytic had to be exercising some faith in order to ask his friends to carry him to Jesus in the first place, and he was certainly acting in faith as he jumped up from his bed! But Jesus was also affirming the faith of the four friends in caring for their brother. We also have a responsibility to intercede in prayer and come along side our brothers and sisters in their difficult life seasons. “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2, NLT).
  • The Pharisees and scribes were beginning to become trapped in a fault-finding mode of thinking. They were becoming jealous and suspicious of Jesus and so they were just waiting to pounce on an opportunity to criticize Him, even when that so-called opportunity was a beautiful act of the miraculous. Shouldn’t we carefully examine ourselves when we find our hearts falling into the same kind of critical spirit of other individuals or groups, even if they may do things a little differently than we do?
  • Which character, or set of characters, do you most closely identify with in this story? The crowd, the friends, the disciples, the paralytic? Why?

Mark 1:21-45 – The Touch of the Savior

We concluded our last study with life’s single most important question: Why should I also follow Jesus? This is the bottom-line question that each Gospel writer seeks to answer by telling us who Jesus is and why He should matter to us. Matthew, for instance, introduces us to Jesus by letting us listen to what Jesus says via the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). But Mark chooses to introduce us to Jesus by letting us watch what Jesus does.

21 Then they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and taught. 22 And they were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

23 Now there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, 24 saying, “Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!”

25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!” 26 And when the unclean spirit had convulsed him and cried out with a loud voice, he came out of him. 27 Then they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? What new doctrine is this? For with authority He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.” 28 And immediately His fame spread throughout all the region around Galilee. (Mark 1:21-28, NKJV)

From here, the pace of the story rapidly picks up! Right after church, Jesus goes straight to Simon’s house and heals his mother-in-law with a simple touch. It doesn’t take long for the entire city to figure out that something wonderful is happening in their neighborhood: “At evening, when the sun had set, they brought to Him all who were sick and those who were demon-possessed. And the whole city was gathered together at the door” (verses 32-33). I like how Luke expands on this: “and He laid His hands on every one of them and healed them” (Luke 4:40). On every one of them… I love this. Not one of us is excluded from the touch of our Redeemer’s hand! Not one of our situations is too far gone, too wretched, too advanced, or too difficult for our Savior’s healing: “No matter what their diseases were, the touch of his hand healed every one” (verse 40, NLT).

“Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed” (verse 35, NKJV). The pace of the story has been fast and intense up to this point, but finally, as the reader, we catch a break. We can finally take a deep breath… And what an appropriate opportunity to do so. It is crucial that we don’t skip past this verse. Take a moment with me to simply pause and drink the scene in… Jesus, finally alone with His Father. At last, the opportunity to rest in God’s Presence and to listen for His Father’s comforting whisper. Jesus is preparing Himself for what will come the following day. He is storing up the Spirit-given wisdom that He will need to discern His Father’s will in every coming challenge and circumstance. If Jesus, the sinless Son of God, needed His quiet, alone time in the secret place with the Father, how badly must we need it, too?

Yet, Jesus quiet hours of solitude and prayer are interrupted all too soon. Jesus will now put into action the discerning direction given by His Father from His night of prayer:

36 And Simon and those who were with Him searched for Him. 37 When they found Him, they said to Him, “Everyone is looking for You.”

38 But He said to them, “Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I have come forth.”

39 And He was preaching in their synagogues throughout all Galilee, and casting out demons. (Mark 1:36-39)

Although the community pleads with Jesus to stay, Jesus knows that His true mission has begun and He must move forward in His ministry. Those who carry the mission of God cannot—must not—remain comfortably, stagnantly in the same place. We must learn from Jesus’ example. Sometimes we, too, must say “no” to the din of demands and competing “responsibilities” in our lives. Sometimes we must say NO to a hundred reasonable, logical obligations “to ourselves” and “to others,” so that we can say YES to the one call that really matters. I love what Oswald Chambers writes:

“My determination is to be my utmost for His Highest.” To get there is a question of will, not of debate nor of reasoning, but a surrender of will, an absolute and irrevocable surrender… An overweening consideration of ourselves is the thing that keeps us from that decision, though we put it that we are considering others… Shut out every other consideration and keep yourself before God for this one thing only—my Utmost for His Highest. I am determined to be absolutely and entirely for Him and for Him alone. (Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest).

As we follow Jesus and His small band of followers as they continue their journey, we are next confronted with one of the most dramatic and shocking accounts in the Gospel story. Bear with me for a moment as I attempt to imagine the scene:

Jesus and his followers carefully make their way down the rough Galilean trail. As dusk begins to settle, they reach the outskirts of their next city. Peter, Andrew, James, and John are excitedly conversing about the miraculous events they have witnessed over the last few days. Suddenly, a cloaked shadow plunges in front of their path. What is it? Is it an animal? A man? The figure stops for a moment, as in a daze, and then stumbles straight toward Jesus. In the clumsiness of his effort, the figure’s hood falls back behind his head, exposing one of the most revolting sights to be seen. A leper! (Luke describes this man as “full of leprosy” which means he was in the most advanced stage of the disease!) The disciples recoil in disdain and disgust. The man’s exposed face looks like that of a demonic monster, half of his disfigured face has been eaten away by the putrefying infection. Andrew stands back in paralyzed silence, but Peter, James, and John quickly grab heavy and sharp stones to hurl at the repulsive creature, a man cursed by the very finger of God! Only the quick and decisive hand motion of Jesus stops them from heaving their stones.

The air hangs heavy with unnerving silence. Only the quiet, gentle, unflinching stare of Jesus gives the leprous man the courage to take the last few steps forward. He collapses to his knees and prostrates himself on the ground. Groveling at the feet of Christ and struggling to control his labored breathing, the man hoarsely wheezes, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean” (verse 40). Jesus doesn’t say anything at first. The disciples take this as their signal to ready their arms for strong, swift blows at the man—a man who has blatantly broken the Jewish laws of leprosy, daring to contaminate others with his curse. The disciples await the slightest signal from Christ to heave their weapons. The man presses his face to the dirt and braces himself for the sharp impact of hurled stones. But Jesus doesn’t give the awaited signal. Instead, Jesus slowly closes his eyes in distress and His face contorts, as if in pain… Jesus is experiencing splagchnizomai—literally in Greek, to be moved to the bowels with gut-wrenching compassion.

The disciples watch in shocked horror as Jesus then slowly stoops to the rotting, living corpse and extends His hand to do the unthinkable.  Instead of the painful blows of stones, the man feels a touch. A gentle yet firm touch. Jesus’ hand tenderly unfolds on the man’s bare head and then lovingly, almost-caressingly moves down his neck, finally resting in a firm grip on the his shoulder. The man shudders beneath the touch. He has not felt the hand of a human hand in years.  The touch is horribly uncomfortable to his benumbed body, almost painful. The man quivers in silence, not even daring to hope for what might come next. Jesus then speaks for the first time. His words pierce the oppressive silence: “I am willing; be cleansed.”

Emanating from the heavy hand on his shoulder, an electrifying shock of sensation pulses through the man’s entire being. In an instant, he feels everything—the tingling skin of his fingertips, the coarse rub of his tattered garment, the ticklish trace of the shoes on his feet, even the pain of his tender face pressed against the stony ground! The man abruptly looks up and his eyes are immediately met with the loving gaze of Jesus. He is cleansed; he is healed!

In that moment, the gospel is proclaimed—a more dramatic, exhilarating demonstration of the gospel message than could ever have been imagined! Friends, this is the unfolding revelation of the good-news message that Mark so desperately wants us to see. Mark chapter 1 begins with a vague hope, barely a whisper, of the good things that we might be able to expect from this Man who claims to be the Son of God. The chapter then progresses through the escalating miracles that this Man can perform and authority that this Man holds. And it all culminates to the unthinkable touch of the Savior’s hand –a touch that has the power make the sick well, the demoniacs restored, the broken whole, and the unclean cleansed. A touch that can change the course of history!

Mark chapter 1 ends in a cliff-hanger, I guess you could say. From such a fast-paced, short-term exposure to the narrative, we as “the first time reader” still know hardly anything at all about this Jesus guy. But one thing is certain: We absolutely must find out what happens next!

Mark 1:1-20 – The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

The life of Christ is revealed to us through the lenses of these four Gospel accounts. Each of these authors brings a different perspective to the table; each one presents a unique angle from which to better understand Christ’s character and mission to this world. And in this way, we are offered four beautifully correlated yet distinct accounts on the life of Jesus. We can get a feel for each Gospel writer’s “agenda” from their respective opening passages. Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus, proving that Jesus is the Son of David – the long-awaited Messiah King of Israel. Luke opens his Gospel by stating his intention to organize Jesus’s life into “an orderly account” for his readers (Luke 1:3). John, of course, poetically takes us to a time before creation ever existed: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1). And then we have the account of Mark, which I hope to spend the next several months studying with you. Mark is sudden, abrupt, to the point: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). There’s no frills, no nativity story, no background to Jesus’ earthly family. Nope, Mark simply wants to make two big points up front: 1.) There’s some good news to tell about this guy named Jesus, and 2.) Oh, by the way, He’s the Son of God.

As I read through the Gospel accounts, especially the Gospel of Mark, I like to make a habit of pretending that I am reading the story for the very first time, with no prior knowledge of the events taking place. This reading paradigm helps us place ourselves in the shoes of Mark’s first century audience, who may have known nothing about Jesus. Mark’s target audience was almost certainly Roman, and Mark wastes no time in taking his readers directly to the point. In fact, Mark’s opening line would have struck a familiar note to his audience. Prior to Christianity, the word for “gospel” (euaggelion) was already used among the Romans in connection with emperor worship – particularly with the emperors’ birthdays and other memorial festivities. For example, a calendar inscription from about 9 B.C. proclaims of Augustus Caesar:the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings [euaggelion] for the world…”* Notice the striking similarities with Mark’s opening line? Mark wants us to see that it is, in fact, the good news about Jesus Christ that will truly change the course of history.

After his attention-grabbing introduction, Mark then immediately launches into an account about John the Baptist, the prophet who is to prepare the way before the Lord:

John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:4-8, NKJV)

With so little background information and context provided, we as the “first time reader” can really only hope to pull out three key takeaway points from these verses: 1.) John is a radical man with a radical message. 2.) This radical message based on the precept of “repentance” (more on that later) has caught the attention of an entire nation. 3.) There is Someone Else coming after him with an even more radical message and an even more fanatical mission!

As the reader, we don’t even have time to digest what all of this might mean before Jesus Himself shows up on the scene:

It came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And immediately, coming up from the water, He saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. 11 Then a voice came from heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

12 Immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness. 13 And He was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to Him.

14 Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:9-15)

The pace here is almost completely overwhelming! Jesus is baptized, and then immediately a voice speaks to Him from heaven, affirming that He is the Son of God. Then immediately (one of Mark’s favorite words!) the Spirit drives Him into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan, and then He comes back and starts preaching? What’s up with all of that?? As Mark’s “first century audience,” we are basically left in a confused daze as to what’s going on so far, except for one major point: This Jesus guy is most definitely NOT a normal man! No, this is a decidedly non-ordinary Man with an extra-ordinary message and mission of supernatural proportions!

Let’s notice that Jesus’ message has two directives here: Repent, and believe in the gospel. Scholars point out that the English word “repent” (to feel remorse for sins) is simply far too shallow for the original Greek word metanoeō. They argue that the Greek term denotes a much more radical transformation of thinking – a complete 180 degree turnaround of how life is perceived and lived. So, Jesus isn’t merely saying, “Feel bad about your sins before coming to God.” He’s saying, “Turn around! No matter what direction your life is headed–no matter how well you think things are going for you–this life-transforming good news that I’m about to share with you is going to make you take a 180 degree reversal in your life! So stop right there in your tracks, turn around, and follow Me by believing in this gospel message!”

We see a radical example of this kind of “metanoeō” in the very next passage, in Jesus’ calling of His first disciples. Let’s read:

16 And as He walked by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. 17 Then Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” 18 They immediately left their nets and followed Him.

19 When He had gone a little farther from there, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the boat mending their nets. 20 And immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went after Him. (Mark 1:16-20)

This is what “metanoeō” looks like! It’s not so much that these fishermen had egregious sins to repent of—it’s that they had just experienced an encounter with the Son of God and, therefore, their lives would not—could not—ever be the same again!

You know, the abruptness and lack of context in this account initially bothered me. Why in the world would these fishermen leave their nets to follow a random guy they have potentially never met before? And then I finally realized that that is the exact question that Mark wants us to ask! You see, the other Gospel writers intentionally give us a more thorough introduction to who Jesus is before He starts calling people to follow Him. Mark, on the other hand, wants to first establish up front that Jesus is a Man who is worth leaving everything behind to follow—even though we don’t know why yet! From this point on, Mark will spend the entire remainder of the book answering this all-important, crucial question which lies at the heart of his gospel message: Why should I metanoeō? Why should I also follow Jesus?

*Cited from: Glen Davis, “Pre-Christian Uses Of ‘Gospel’

“Throughout all their journeys”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Set up the Tabernacle on the first day of the new year. (Exodus 40:1-2, NLT).

At last we reach the end of our journey through Exodus together. In the closing chapter of the book, God finally gives Moses the go-ahead to complete the construction of the sacred Tabernacle tent. We have waited so long for this moment. There have been so many unnecessary detours in the Israelites’ spiritual journey up to this point. Yet, finally, here we are! Notice that God instructs Moses to erect the Tabernacle “on the first day of the new year.” This is an echo back to Exodus 12 where the Passover was to mark the beginning of a brand new year and a new calendar system for the Hebrews. It’s as if God was saying, “Forget everything in your sordid past. We’re wiping the slate and starting over again from scratch.” As G. Campbell Morgan puts it, “God is ever the God of new beginnings in the history of failure.”

And now, here we are exactly one year from Israel’s deliverance. Moses and the people are eager to prepare for God’s “move-in day”.

Moses proceeded to do everything just as the Lord had commanded him.So the Tabernacle was set up on the first day of the first month of the second year. Moses erected the Tabernacle… just as the Lord had commanded him. (Verses 18-19, NLT)

This point is emphasized over and over again in the verses that follow. Seven times we read that Moses did everything “just as the Lord had commanded.” This is a beautiful place in Scripture. Finally, we find Israel in the perfect resting place of trusting, relationship-based obedience. Israel is now ready to experience the Presence of God. Not that obedience earns God’s love or favor, but obedience invites God’s Presence to be lived out in our lives. As Professor Steve Rodeheaver writes, “In the Exodus narrative, when we are obedient we are preparing… for a day of Presence. Presence is on the other end of obedience.” (Steve Rodeheaver, Exodus Talks: Pastoral Devotionals from Exodus, CRI/Voice, Institute)

Then the cloud covered the Tabernacle, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. Moses could no longer enter the Tabernacle because the cloud had settled down over it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.

Now whenever the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out on their journey, following it. But if the cloud did not rise, they remained where they were until it lifted. The cloud of the Lord hovered over the Tabernacle during the day, and at night fire glowed inside the cloud so the whole family of Israel could see it. This continued throughout all their journeys. (Verses 34-38, NLT)

God’s Presence manifests itself as a cloud over the settlement of the Israelites. The rabbis later referred to this holy manifestation as the Shekinah glory. Here are a couple of thoughts about what it means to experience God’s Presence based on these passages:

1.) “Then the cloud covered the Tabernacle, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.” God’s Shekinah Presence takes up quite a bit of real estate, doesn’t it? When God’s glory enters our lives, it starts to crowd other things out. (The cloud was so all-permeating, so all-consuming that even Moses couldn’t enter the tabernacle because of it!) To really experience God’s Presence, we have to be willing to let His glory claim every square inch of our hearts and lives.

2.) “Now whenever the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out on their journey, following it.” When the cloud of God’s glory takes up residence in our hearts, we have to be willing to follow it wherever it leads. We stop where it settles; we follow when it moves. You know, when we think of what it means to experience God’s Presence, I think sometimes we merely equate it with some sort of emotional worship experience. While I am certainly an advocate of personal quiet time in our secret place with God, these passages remind me that experiencing God’s Presence is also about surrendering, obeying, and following. The true experience of God’s Presence will  eventually result in action.

3.) “This continued throughout all their journeys.” The entire book of Exodus is about journeying – the journey from oppression and slavery under Pharaoh to redemption and freedom under God. “Journey” is an appropriate term for our lives as well, and God is willing to walk with us every step of the way. Even the sanctuary reminds us of this reality. Every detail of the tabernacle was designed for travel. I like what Steve Rodeheaver has to say:

Israel will travel according to the cloud. Life is to be lived around the Presence of Yahweh. Life is not stagnant. It involves a journey. And thus Israel has a Tabernacle with mobility. It is a tent that they can pitch when it is time to settle and pack up when it is time to move.

This mobility is a great thing, something that we surely appreciate in our cell phone society. But I think we need to be careful to recognize the impetus for their mobility. The mobility of the Tabernacle was not so that they could take Yahweh with them, but so that they might be able to follow Yahweh’s leading… I fear that we tend to treat God in His mobility as something packable, something that we can stick in our suitcases and pull out whenever we feel the need for a worship experience or a miracle. We make our life decisions according to where we want to go, generally regarding God as an afterthought. You know, one more item that can be squeezed into the suitcase that would be good to bring along…

Yahweh is to be followed, not merely taken along. Exodus closes with Israel well aware of this truth. How aware of it are we?

(Steve Rodeheaver, Exodus Talks: Pastoral Devotionals from Exodus, CRI/Voice, Institute)

This study series through Exodus has been an amazing journey, and I hope you have been as blessed by it as I have. In our closing thoughts, let’s ask ourselves these self-reflective questions:

  •  What stage are you at in your “journey” with God? Are you fresh out of Egypt? Are you in a place where you’d perhaps even rather be back in Egypt, where at least things were known and to some extent comfortable? (Exodus 14:10-12) Are you at the place of bitter waters? Or are you maybe at the foot of Mount Sinai, eager to take the next step and follow God’s leading into the land of promise?
  • For you personally, what does it mean to experience God’s Presence? How do you feel that experience relates to obedience, the active following of God’s will in your life?
  • If you are really honest with your heart, do you think you are in a place in life where God’s guiding Presence is asking you to “stop and settle” for a while, or to “set out and follow”? Does that direction line up with what you want to do?
  • In your life journey, what practical steps can you take to ensure that God’s Presence is not treated as “just another thing to pack in the suitcase”?

Presence

When we left off in Exodus 32 a few weeks ago, we were confronted with the unbridled, raw emotion of a betrayed God. Moses had begged God to restore the covenant with His people, and yet, the end of chapter 32 left us dismayed with what seemed to be an unequivocal “NO!” I appreciate how Professor Steve Rodeheaver helps us to understand this unsettling place in Scripture: “if we are to know Yahweh’s heart, if we are to know the heart that Christ reveals, that’s where we must be for now: the not-yet-forgiven side of forgiveness” (Exodus Talks: Pastoral Devotionals from Exodus, CRI/Voice, Institute)

As we continue reading in Exodus 33, we listen as God and Moses continue their conversation once again:

The Lord said to Moses, “Get going, you and the people you brought up from the land of Egypt. Go up to the land I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob… And I will send an angel before you… But I will not travel among you, for you are a stubborn and rebellious people. If I did, I would surely destroy you along the way.” (Exodus 33:1-3, NLT)

Basically, God is saying that Moses and the people are free to go their own way. God will send an angel before them to clear the way and fulfill the promise to Abraham, but He Himself will not be traveling among the people. The relationship, it seems once again, has been too far damaged. The covenant has been shattered beyond repair. You know, at this point, I think if Moses had any less of a heart for God than he had, this arrangement probably would have seemed good enough. “Okay, God, thanks for at least sparing our lives! I guess we’ll be heading our separate ways now… (At least there will be a lot less rules this way.) Well, see you later!” But, no! Moses knew that this arrangement was completely unacceptable. Without God’s very Presence in their midst, there was simply no point in continuing to exist as a people.

At this point in the narrative, however, we find this rather awkward break in the flow. Verses 7 through 11 give this seemingly-random aside about Moses and the “Tent of Meeting” (separate from the sanctuary tent) where he would go to speak with God. I didn’t appreciate the purpose of this side note until just recently, when I finally realized that the reason we have this passage is so that we have context–a backdrop, so to speak–on the unspeakably intimate friendship which God and Moses enjoyed. This passage helps us to understand why Moses will ask what he is about to ask. But before we get to that part, I just love how verse 11 reads: “Inside the Tent of Meeting, the LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Afterward Moses would return to the camp, but the young man who assisted him, Joshua son of Nun, would remain behind in the Tent of Meeting” (verse 11, NLT). I especially love this part about Joshua. You see, Joshua wanted so badly to experience God’s Presence that he would stay behind at the tent after Moses left — just so that he might catch a glimpse of God’s lingering Presence. Oh, that we would have hearts for God like Joshua!

Now that we have this backdrop to Moses’ and God’s friendship in place, let’s read what Moses asks of God in verses 12 and on:

Then Moses said to the Lord, “See, You say to me, ‘Bring up this people.’ But You have not let me know whom You will send with me. Yet You have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found grace in My sight.’ Now therefore, I pray, if I have found grace in Your sight, show me now Your way, that I may know You and that I may find grace in Your sight. And consider that this nation is Your people.”

And He said, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (verses 12-14, NKJV)

God’s response to Moses is both gracious and loving. But at this point, God has only promised to personally be with Moses, singularly. Yet Moses’ courage and confidence is bolstered by this response, and he’s ready to probe God’s heart even deeper for the sake of the people:

Then he said to Him, “If Your Presence does not go with us, do not bring us up from here. For how then will it be known that Your people and I have found grace in Your sight, except You go with us? So we shall be separate, Your people and I, from all the people who are upon the face of the earth.”

So the Lord said to Moses, “I will also do this thing that you have spoken; for you have found grace in My sight, and I know you by name.” (verses 15-17, NKJV)

Amazing grace, unfailing love! God’s goodness and graciousness know no bounds. Israel is forgiven and the covenant is renewed. The relationship is restored! I can only imagine Moses’ breathless relief and ecstatic wonder at this response. His heart is so overcome by God’s words that he blurts out the most daring request of all: “Please, show me Your glory” (verse 18). I imagine that God’s heart thrilled at Moses’ request for deeper intimacy! Moses’ request is granted, yet, God must warn Moses that only His back can be seen. God then arranges for Moses to meet with Him again on the mountain.

As we come to Exodus chapter 34, our anticipation as the reader can hardly be contained. This is the first time in the biblical narrative that someone will actually encounter God’s full glory! Even if it is only God’s back, we eagerly wait to see what this experience will be like. What will it look like? What will it feel like? And, yet, when we get to verses 5 through 7, we are left surprised–maybe even a little disappointed at first–at the lack of a physical description of the event. Instead, here’s what we get:

Then the Lord came down in a cloud and stood there with him; and he called out his own name, Yahweh. The Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out,

“Yahweh! The Lord!
The God of compassion and mercy!
I am slow to anger
and filled with unfailing love [hesed] and faithfulness [’emet].
I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations.
I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin.
But I do not excuse the guilty… ” (Exodus 34:5-7, NLT)

No description of what God looked like. No description of what the encounter felt like. Instead, what do we get? We get a transcript of God’s character. We get a picture of how God chooses to relate to His people. We are reintroduced to who God really is: the LORD is full of immeasurable compassion, boundless mercy, unfailing love, and eternal faithfulness! I especially love the use of the Hebrew word hesed. Hesed describes a love so deep, so intense, so radical, that we simply don’t have an English word to describe it. It’s a word that is never used to describe the love between a man and women, because that kind of love simply isn’t deep enough. It’s only ever used to describe the self-sacrificing, unfailing love of God for you and me. Likewise, the Hebrew word ‘Emet denotes uncompromising fidelity, unwavering reliability, unchanging faithfulness. Moses wants us to know that this is what God’s glory is like!

As we close out our weeks, my prayer is that we will develop an insatiable thirst for God’s Presence just like Moses and Joshua. Like Moses, let our prayer be that God’s Presence will “go with us” in every step of our daily journey. It’s a prayer God’s heart is yearning to answer.

The Shattered Covenant

Last time, we studied the first half of Exodus 32: the Israelites’ disobedience against God and the making of the golden calf. So far, we’ve read everything from the perspective of the people. Starting in verse 7, however, the focus of the story’s action suddenly shifts back to God and Moses. As the reader, we are confronted with the full, unbridled, raw emotion of a betrayed God:

The Lord told Moses, “Quick! Go down the mountain! Your people whom you brought from the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. How quickly they have turned away from the way I commanded them to live! …I have seen how stubborn and rebellious these people are. Now leave me alone so my fierce anger can blaze against them, and I will destroy them. Then I will make you, Moses, into a great nation.” (Exodus 32:7-10, NLT)

In response to God’s anger, Moses immediately throws himself into the position of intercession for the people he loves – the people he knows God loves! Notice, how Moses in his prayer first turns God’s words around and gives the people back to God: “But Moses implored the LORD his God and said, ‘O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt…?” (vs. 11, ESV) Moses then appeals to God on the basis of His reputation: “Why let the Egyptians say…?” (vs. 12) In other words, “Your glory and reputation is at stake among the nations here, God! Don’t turn Your back on Your people!” Finally, in his desperate prayer, Moses ultimately appeals to God on the basis of His covenant promise: “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self” (vs. 13, ESV). Moses knows that above all, God is a promise keeper. He knows that when all else seems to fail, he can count on God’s eternal covenantal faithfulness.

The astounding surprise of the story comes in verse 14: “So the LORD changed his mind about the terrible disaster he had threatened to bring on his people” (NLT). This verse has left many confused and frustrated. How can we reconcile the idea of God changing His mind with what we read about God’s unchanging and eternal nature? “God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through?” (Numbers 23:19, NLT) What we must recognize here is that God is using “anthropomorphic” (human-like) qualities to express himself in a way that we can understand and relate to. Even more importantly, God is using this interaction to thrust Moses into a Christ-like position of intercession for his people. I like how commentator David Guzik puts it:

God did not destroy Israel, and He knew that He would not destroy Israel. Yet He deliberately put Moses into this crucial place of intercession, so that Moses would display and develop God’s heart for the people, a heart of love and compassion. Moses prayed just as God wanted him to – as if heaven and earth, salvation or destruction, depended on his prayer. This is how God waits for us to pray. (David Guzik, Commentary on Exodus)

Moses prayed the exact prayer that God wanted to hear. “That’s right, Moses! That’s exactly what I hoped you would say. You have proven to me that you have the same heart of love that I have for our people.” As I reflect on this amazing reality, I find theologian R. Alan Cole’s words particularly meaningful: “We are not to think of Moses as altering God’s purpose towards Israel by this prayer, but as carrying it out: Moses was never more like God than in such moments, for he shared God’s mind and loving purpose”(Exodus, p. 227).

But the drama of our story is not over yet. We then read how Moses goes down the mountain to fully realize the extent of the people’s rebellion. It was worse than Moses could have ever imagined. Moses immediately gets down to business and carries out a swift sentence of justice on the leading offenders. But after that, Moses again returns to the mountain to speak with God. This time, Moses isn’t pleading for the people’s lives (that request was granted earlier). The question that now hangs in the balance is: Will God choose to continue His covenantal relationship with Israel? As the reader, we are left wondering, “Can the shattered relationship between God and Israel ever be restored? Will God ever claim the Hebrews as His people again?” The end of chapter 32 leaves us astonished and dismayed with what seems to be a clear and irrevocable “NO!”

And the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book… in the day when I visit for punishment, I will visit punishment upon them for their sin.”

So the Lord plagued the people because of what they did with the calf which Aaron made. (Exodus 32:33-35, NKJV)

In closing for this segment of the study, I would like to leave you with the thoughts of Professor Steve Rodeheaver:

That’s where our text ends for now. Plague. Israel must feel the pain of Yahweh… There was no forgiveness. It was still too soon. Imagine discovering that your spouse only married you as a means to an end. You have been reduced from a covenant partner to a manageable resource. The wound is deep. The rage is strong. Quick, automatic forgiveness? No such thing. Can the counselor coax you into forgiveness? Not a chance, not if it is going to be genuine. No, that forgiveness will have to come, if it comes, from deep within your own heart. And thus we wait to discover what lies deep within the heart of Yahweh.

[At this point], it would be easy, too easy, to jump to the New Testament and Jesus as the atonement for our sins. To make that move would be true enough, but to make it so quickly would distort the nature of forgiveness and shrink both Israel’s sin and Yahweh’s heart. The sin of reduction is huge. Only a huge forgiveness can cover it. Does Yahweh have a huge enough heart to re-covenant with Israel? So far, there is only a whisper of hope. Possibly, just maybe, plague is not the last word.

But we don’t know, not yet. We have to wait amid hushed tones of hope to see what’s in the heart of Yahweh. As a New Testament people it is an awkward place for us to be. But if we are to know Yahweh’s heart, if we are to know the heart that Christ reveals, that’s where we must be for now: the not-yet-forgiven side of forgiveness. (Steve Rodeheaver, Exodus Talks: Pastoral Devotionals from Exodus, CRI/Voice, Institute)

Be sure to watch for our next study over Exodus 33!