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 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 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!”

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’

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Covenant

All along our Exodus journey, the climax has been building and building as the Hebrews approach Mount Sinai to meet with their God. On this mountain, God will finally reveal Himself to His people, and here He will invite His people to enter in to an eternal covenantal relationship with Him: “You know how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation'” (Exodus 19:4-6, NLT).

As we break this interaction in Exodus 19 and 20 down, however, I think it’s fascinating that God keeps emphasizing to Moses, “Don’t let the people break through the boundaries of the mountain; don’t let them see Me, or else they will die” (my paraphrase). God stresses these instructions over and over again. It’s almost as if God anticipates the children of Israel wanting so badly to see Him that they will break through the boundaries just to get a glimpse of His glory. However, the stark irony is, that when God does come to the mountain and invite the people to approach Him, the people “stood at a distance, trembling with fear” (verse 18). In fact, they find God’s Presence and voice so terrifying that they plead with Moses in verse 19, “You speak to us, and we will listen. But don’t let God speak directly to us, or we will die!” They even beg Moses to wear a veil over his face when he returns from speaking with God so they won’t have to look on the residual light of God’s glory. (Make a note of that! We’ll revisit this thought a bit later.) The tragic irony of this story is that the people want nothing to do with God’s Presence. “We promise that we’ll do everything this God wants,” they cry out to Moses, “Just please tell Him to stay away from us!” It all boils down to this: Israel wanted the protection and benefits of God’s covenant, but not the relationship with the Covenant Giver. Here is a people who want to basically get as far away from their God as possible, and yet, in Exodus 19:8, they boldly proclaim, “All that the LORD has spoken WE WILL DO” (NKJV). You really think so, huh? And yet, just a matter of days later, we find the camp in full-blown rebellion against their God… How very, very sad.

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But what does this story mean for us today? Why so much focus on the glory and the veil? What does all of this have to do with the Old and New Covenants? It has everything to do with them! It is from this vantage point that we find the stage brilliantly set for the glorious revelation of God’s New Covenant with us today. We can read about it in Hebrews, chapter 8:

If the first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need for a second covenant to replace it. But when God found fault with the people, he said: The day is coming, says the Lord, when I will make new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah…

I will put my laws in their minds,
and I will write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
And they will not need to teach their neighbors,
nor will they need to teach their relatives,
saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’
For everyone, from the least to the greatest,
will know me already.
And I will forgive their wickedness,
and I will never again remember their sins.”
(Hebrews 8:10-13, NLT)

You see, this time around God wants us to get something straight: It’s not about what we do for God. It’s all about what HE does for us! At the end of the day, it can all be summed up like this:

Old Covenant: “All that the LORD has said, WE WILL do” (Exodus 19:8)

vs.

New Covenant: “I WILL put my laws in their minds, and I WILL write them on their hearts” (Hebrews 8:10)

That is the fundamental difference between the Old Covenant and the New. In actuality, this has always been God’s plan for us. There’s a sense in which God never intended there to be an Old Covenant versus a New Covenant. The problem with the Old Covenant isn’t God’s posture towards us, because that has remained eternally unchanged — it’s ours toward God. The problem is the veil that lies over our hearts and minds. The veil came about because the children of Israel did not want to look at the glory of God. God’s Presence was entirely too disruptive and unsettling for them. Instead, they believed they could keep their end of the covenant in their own strength — without the transforming power of God’s Presence, without the relationship. And this is, in fact, something that we can be just as guilty of today. You see, God’s glory in our lives can be quite an uncomfortable thing. God’s glory unleashed can take us for a pretty wild ride — a ride where we aren’t the ones driving! We simply can’t remain unchanged in the face of it. That’s a pretty terrifying prospect for us. We would often prefer to “obey” on our own strength, in our own way — just like Israel. And so, we look for “veils” to keep God’s Presence at a safe distance from us. As 2 Corinthians 3:14 says, “the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth.” We may go to church, read a daily devotion occasionally, and listen to KLTY during our morning commute, but when it comes to really allowing the transforming power of God’s Presence to be unleashed in our lives… Well, we too often decide that we’re much more comfortable simply “standing at a distance.”

Now, here’s the amazing piece of the picture! Thanks to the life and death of Jesus, “whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (2 Corinthians 3:16). Because of our massive failure to understand and respond to the invitation of relationship offered through the first presentation of the covenant (Hebrews 8:8), it was necessary for Jesus to introduce the second presentation of the covenant. We broke covenantal relationship the first time around, and God responded by allowing Himself to be broken, to be torn apart at the cross. But, praise God, in that sundering of the Godhead, something else was also was also ripped down — that separating veil: “Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matthew 24:51). What fantastic news! The largest veil of all has already been torn apart! What’s left is for us to allow those little veils in our lives to be pulled down, so that we can directly behold God’s glory — the glory that comes from a living, breathing daily relationship with Him, in His abiding Presence. “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18, NKJV). This glory transforms us from the inside out! All of the sudden, we realize that we don’t have to work to earn anything with our Heavenly Father. We simply accept, in a beautiful Sabbath rest, the unspeakable gift which He has given us. We are then able, as we surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit, to live in complete harmony with God’s breath-taking covenant and His eternal Law which governs it.

Unlike your ancestors, you didn’t come to Mount Sinai-all that volcanic blaze and earthshaking rumble-to hear God speak. The earsplitting words and soul-shaking message terrified them and they begged him to stop…

No, that’s not your experience at all. You’ve come to Mount Zion, the city where the living God resides. The invisible Jerusalem is populated by throngs of festive angels and Christian citizens. It is the city where God is Judge, with judgments that make us just. You’ve come to Jesus, who presents us with a new covenant, a fresh charter from God. He is the Mediator of this covenant…

(Hebrews 12:18-24, The Message)

Passover

“Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go.” Pharaoh’s defiance has reached its apex, and now God is about to show up on the scene and let Pharaoh know just who the LORD is. Exodus chapters 7 through 10 tell us all about it. In a series of intensifying plagues, God takes each of the Egyptian deities head on to prove His supreme power. Yet, Pharaoh stubbornly persists in his defiant pride. Finally, in Exodus 11, the LORD pronounces the final plague which will succeed in getting Pharaoh’s full attention: throughout all the land of Egypt, each and every firstborn child will die.

But, thank God that we have Exodus chapter 12. In this chapter, God outlines the simple, yet very specific, instructions on taking a lamb without spot or blemish, sacrificing it, and smearing its blood on the doorposts of each home. Every family that follows these instructions exactly will be spared from death. The plague will “pass over” their home.

Interestingly enough, the instructions for the Pesach feast marked the beginning of a brand new year and a new calendar system for the Hebrews (Exodus 12:2). It’s as if God was saying, “Remember all those years in slavery? Well, you can forget them now! 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.”

On the tenth day of this new year, each family was to choose a perfect lamb. For the next four days, the family was to take care of that little lamb in the home. The lamb was to be loved and cared for, treated as a part of the family. Can you imagine how difficult it was for the family to then take the cherished pet and slaughter it? This practice was intended to teach how heart-wrenching the sacrifice of Christ, our Passover lamb, would be, as well as the terrible, ugly consequences of sin.

The blood of the lamb was then to be applied to the doorposts of the home. Why the doorposts, I wonder? Maybe it’s because doorposts represent the every-day activities of our world. The Scripture often speaks of our “coming in and going out” – the daily rhythm of our lives, so to speak. (See Psalm 121:8.) I am reminded then, that when we accept the gift of Jesus, it is something that covers our entire lives. Not one piece of our daily routine can be left out of His all-encompassing sacrifice. Likewise, the Hebrews were instructed to eat every bit of meat of the paschal lamb (Exodus 12:9-10). None of it was to remain to the morning. When we think of the sacrifice of Jesus, we can’t pick and choose what part of Him we want, can we? No, we must take all of Him and accept ALL of His atonement for us. This has profound, course-altering implications for how we live our lives.

I think it’s fascinating that God gave all these instructions and instituted this feast–a party of celebration, really–all BEFORE He ever delivers His children. It takes some faith to celebrate your freedom before liberation actually happens, doesn’t it? In our way of thinking, we would put the deliverance first, and then have a party to celebrate it. But not God – He reminds us that we can have such faith in His Word, that we can begin celebrating even now.

Finally, the scripture goes on to say, “And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years–on that very same day–it came to pass that all the armies of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:41). It may have seemed like God was silent those 430 years, just like it may seem like God is silent and distant in our lives during some seasons. Yet we can know with full assurance that God is constantly, ceaselessly working behind the scenes to accomplish his purpose for us with exact and perfect precision.

It’s a thought that we can take hope and courage in.

“Now, you will see what I will do”

As we read through Exodus 4, we see that Moses and God have been going back and forth on this “deliver my people” business for a while now, and finally, Moses runs out of excuses. “But Moses again pleaded, ‘Lord, please! Send anyone else'” (Exodus 4:13, NLT). Finally, the real reason comes out – Moses simply does not want to go. God has been exceedingly patient with Moses up to this point. God has parried every excuse Moses has brought to the table, but finally God gets a little ticked: “Then the Lord became angry with Moses” (verse 14). When God calls us to do something, He is more than willing to patiently work with our weaknesses and even our wavering faith. But when it boils down to sheer unwillingness to obey His call, then that’s what frustrates God and hinders His ability to continue working with us. But God compromises with Moses, I guess you could say. He agrees to send Aaron along with Moses. Of course, this ends up being a less-than-ideal situation since Aaron will end up causing a number of sticky patches along the way. However, under God’s direction, Moses and Aaron do eventually make their way to Egypt to meet up with the Hebrew elders:

Then Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the children of Israel… So the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had visited the children of Israel and that He had looked on their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshiped. (Exodus 4:29-31, NKJV)

Then they bowed their heads and worshiped… I love this. When we learn of God’s amazing love and when we see His revelation in our life, our only proper response is to worship. Worship is a response to what God has done for us. Worship is the glue that holds our relationship with God together.

So things are off to a promising start, right? The people believed! Now it’s just a matter of politely asking Pharaoh to set his slaves free, right? With God on his side, Moses is sure to have the road clearly laid out before him! Except, that’s not exactly how it plays out, is it? Exodus 5 details the disastrous fallout of Moses’ audience with Pharaoh and the painful consequences that the suffering people must bear. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can hardly blame Moses for his agonizing cry:

Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all!” (Exodus 5:22-23, NIV)

I think there’s a lesson in this reminding us that, sometimes when we follow God’s call, things may get worse before they get better. God hadn’t filled Moses in on all the details, but He had given Moses the big picture. Moses must learn to trust God with the big picture, even when the details seem to go the wrong direction. And so must we.

I appreciate Moses’ raw honesty with God. But I love even more how God responds to Moses… In response to Moses’ bitter outcry, God simply says, “Now you will see what I will do…” God isn’t angry with Moses, as we might expect. Instead He simply replies, “Just watch, Moses, and see what I can do.” Let’s remember that! Sometimes, when it seems like we’ve reached the end of our rope in life, when it seems like our backs are against a wall and there’s nowhere else to turn, just remember that those times are often the exact opportunity God has been waiting for to say, “Now, you will see what I will do!”

The LORD gently reminds Moses that He is fully aware of His children’s suffering, and that, with each stinging whip lash, His own heart has reverberated with the pain: “You can be sure that I have heard the groans of the people of Israel, who are now slaves to the Egyptians. And I am well aware of my covenant with them” (Exodus 6:5, NLT). God then wraps everything up in a beautiful restatement of His covenant. In a seven-fold “I will” promise, God reaffirms His covenant with His people:

“Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I AM the Lord [YHWH] and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I AM the Lord.‘” (Exodus 6:6-8, NIV)

Notice how this beautiful promise is bookended by a declaration of God’s holy name – a claim of His identity and character. Before we jump head-first into our busy schedules this week, let’s take some time to meditate on God’s seven-fold promise to us today:

  • I will bring you out from under the yoke of the bondage.
  • I will free you from being slaves to this world’s sin and addiction.
  • I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of power.
  • I will take you as my own child.
  • I will be your God.
  • I will bring you to the land, the spacious place (Psalm 18:19), I swore to give you with an uplifted hand. (That is both a promise for this world and the world to come!)
  • I will give it to you as a possession, an inheritance. (“In Christ also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will.” Ephesians 1:11, KJ21.)

May the Father and Son and Holy Spirt richly bless you today!

“I AM WHO I AM”

The end of Exodus 2 gave us insight into God’s perspective of His people’s suffering: “God heard their groaning, and he remembered his covenant promise… He looked down on the people of Israel and knew it was time to act” (verses 24-25, NLT). Chapter 3 unveils God’s plan to deliver His children.

“One day Moses was tending the flock… He led the flock far into the wilderness and came to Sinai, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the middle of a bush” (Exodus 3:1-2, NLT). I think it’s insightful that the Hebrew word here for Sinai (or “Horeb,” as is also used) is a word that means “dryness” or “desolation.” It is from the dry and desolate places–the places where we feel abandoned and hopeless–that God often reveals His Presence in our lives. (An encouraging thought.)

God calls to Moses from the midst of the burning bush. He introduces Himself. “I am the God of your father–the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” He shares His plan to use Moses as His instrument of deliverance for the Hebrews, but Moses has some reservations, doesn’t he? “But Moses protested to God, ‘Who am I to appear before Pharaoh? Who am I to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt?'” (verse 11). Moses’ big concern here is, “Who am I?” Notice that God doesn’t even attempt to answer Moses’ question. He simply responds by telling Moses the only thing Moses needs to know: “I will be with you.” Moses is asking the wrong question. Because it’s not about who Moses is – it is, in fact, all about who God is!

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But Moses protested, “If I go to the people of Israel and tell them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they will ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what should I tell them?”

God replied to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. Say this to the people of Israel: I AM has sent me to you.”God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: [YHWH], the God of your ancestors-the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob-has sent me to you. (Exodus 3:13-15)

What’s going on here is profound. The Hebrew phrase for “I AM WHO I AM” is heyeh aser heyeh. The central word, hayah, simply means “to be.” God is claiming to be “the Self-Existent One.” He is completely self-sustaining and self-sufficient. Everything and everyone else derives life and receives breath from Him. As Acts 17:28 reminds us, “In Him, we live and move and have our being… ‘For we also are his children.'” Fascinatingly enough, God goes on to introduce his name as “YHWH.” (Most Bibles denote this term by reading “the LORD” in all caps.) This “Tetragrammaton,” as it is referred to, was considered to be the most sacred of all of God’s names. It only consists of four Hebrew consonants, and we have no idea what the vowels were, or even if there were any. In fact, many rabbinical scholars believe that these four consonants are meant to form a composite of the three tenses of that same Hebrew word hayah, “to be”: He Was, He Is, He Is to Come. (Sound familiar? Compare with Revelation chapter 1, verse 4 and 8!)

It gets even better than that! This name of God is also inseparably connected with the idea of God’s life-giving breath. As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes:

The letters of the name of God in Hebrew… are frequently mispronounced Yahweh. But in truth they are inutterable…

This word {YHWH} is the sound of breathing.

The holiest name in the world, the Name of the Creator, is the sound of your own breathing. That these letters are unpronounceable is no accident. Just as it is no accident that they are also the root letters of the Hebrew verb ‘to be’… God’s name is the name of Being itself. And, since God is holy, then so is all creation. At the burning bush, Moses asks for God’s Name, but God only replies with Ehyeh-hasher-ehyeh, which is often incorrectly rendered by the static English, ‘I am who I am.’ But in truth the Hebrew may denote the future tense: ‘I will be who I will be.’ Here is a Name (and a God) who is neither completed nor finished. This God is literally not yet…

A God who is neither completed nor finished… I am humbly reminded by this of how absolutely impossible it is to put God in a box. We can’t define Him; we can’t contain Him. God continues to grow and expand beyond our horizons of definition and constraint. That must also mean that we never reach the “finishing point” with God. We will never reach the place where we’ve experienced all of Him or where we’ve stopped growing and progressing in our relationship with Him. With God, the best is always yet to come!

It all circles back to the Creation account, doesn’t it? “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7, NKJV). So, if our every breath is an utterance of our Creator’s name–a reminder of His life-sustaining power–then that means that the very act of breathing is an act of worship! Look at what Romans 12:1 declares in the NIV: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies [your life, your thoughts, your breath–everything you are] as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship [‘this is truly the way to worship him’, NLT].” The songs we sing and the prayers we pray are all nice, but what is our Heavenly Father really looking for in His people? He’s looking for a people who simply “live life.” A people who live in such a way that every breath is a witness, a proclamation, of God’s Name–a declaration to the onlooking world of Who God Is! 

But I will reveal my name to my people, and they will come
to know its power.
Then at last they will recognize that I am the one who speaks to them…
My people will see again who I AM.
I will tell them, “I AM here. And I AM ready.
(Isaiah 52:6, NLT/The Voice, capitalization supplied)

 

The Dead Church – Sardis

About thirty-five miles south of Thyatira, lay the city of Sardis. We can read Jesus’ letter to this church in Revelation 3:1-6. Unlike His opening to the other churches, Jesus does not begin with any praise for Sardis. Instead, He jumps directly to the point: “I know all the things you do, and that you have a reputation for being alive-but you are dead. Wake up!” (vs. 1-2, NLT) The city of Sardis had a rather interesting past. Located on a high mountain precipice, the city considered itself impregnable. Yet, Sardis was actually conquered twice during the 550 B.C. to 220 B.C. span. Both times, an enemy scout scaled the mountainous walls and opened the city gates from the inside – while the population, feeling perfectly safe, was sound asleep. Jesus’ warning to the church would certainly remind the readers of their unfortunate history: “If you don’t wake up, I will come to you suddenly, as unexpected as a thief.”

It’s interesting that Christ has no rebuke against the church’s teachings. Unlike the previous two churches, Sardis has remained doctrinally pure. But, at the same time, the church has become encumbered by cold, stagnant legalism – a type of “works” based on doctrinal dogma. “I know your works,” Jesus declares almost cynically. Yet the congregation is completely missing another, infinitely more vital, kind of “works.” Smugly self-satisfied in its doctrinal purity and dogmatic legalism, this church has ceased the works of mission and service! This is a church that no longer follows Christ’s great commission of going, serving, and sharing. Sardis has fallen utterly short of its calling: “I have not found your works perfect before God.” (vs. 2, NKJV). Of course, we all understand that works most certainly do not save us! We do not earn God’s favor with our actions or behaviors, but we can think of “works” like we think of a tree’s fruit. A tree doesn’t stay alive by producing fruit, does it? It stays alive by gathering nutrients through its underground root system. (We can think of daily prayer, Bible study, and reflection in Jesus’ presence as our underground root system.) The fruit, therefore, is merely a natural consequence of the tree’s root system being healthy and alive. Just so, works of service act as the church’s vital signs – they’re the pulse of the spiritual health of the body of Christ. And, in Sardis’ condition, the pulse has nearly flat-lined!

But, thank God, Jesus has a solution: “Go back to what you heard and believed at first; hold to it firmly” (vs. 3, NLT). Get back to the basics! Apparently, this church has become so encumbered with rigid legalism that they have lost sight of the most basic teachings of the Gospel. Jesus pleads with them to return to the starting point. For God so loved the world… (John 3:16). Salvation by grace through faith alone… (Eph. 2:8). Nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified… (1 Cor. 2:2). These tenants are the pillars of our faith! Everything else is just supporting material. Once the church’s message is recentered on the Good News about Jesus–once the root system is in place!–then, and only then, will the church will be re-energized to launch an effective ministry of service and outreach! As the old saying goes, “You can’t put the cart before the horse.”

I also want to be re-energized in my works of ministry and service! Don’t you? I plan to take some time this week to reflect on the health of my “root system” and renew my commitment to daily walk in Jesus’ presence. I hope you will join me.

The Corrupt Church – Thyatira

It’s been a blessing to be able to study through the letters to the seven churches with you! This week, we explore Revelation 2:18-29 – Jesus’ words to the fourth church of Thyatira, a church that we often refer to as “the corrupt church.” Despite its problems, however, most of the members of the body are sincere believers. Jesus first begins by commending this group for its effective works of ministry: “I have seen your love, your faith, your service, and your patient endurance. And I can see your constant improvement in all these things” (Revelation 2:19, NLT). Notice how these concepts are related to each other:

Love leads to service; faith leads to perseverance. If you love God, you will serve his people. You cannot help it. It is the sign that you love that you are willing to serve. And if you have faith you will persevere; you will understand that God is in control and things will work out according to his purpose. (Ray Stedman. “Thyatira: The Worldly Church”)

If only the testimony to Thyatira stopped there! “But I have this complaint against you. You are permitting that woman–that Jezebel who calls herself a prophet–to lead my servants astray. She teaches them to commit sexual sin and to eat food offered to idols” (v. 20, NLT). Our first question is, of course: Who is Jezebel? We understand that this was not a literal person in the church, but rather a symbolic figure referring to a spirit of heretical teaching. Jezebel was, of course, the evil queen of the Old Testament who forced pagan Baal worship on the Israelite nation and who massacred God’s true prophets. So, notice the progression that we have seen over the last few churches: In the first church, Jesus applauds the Ephesians for “hating” the deeds of the Nicolaitans. The third church of Pergamum, however, has begun to “tolerate” some who “hold” the doctrine of the Nicolaitans and Balaam. Finally, Thyatira “allows” this Jezebel to openly “teach” God’s followers to abandon themselves to sexual sin and idolatry! The Jezebel heresy is the worst of all.

But what did this influence actually look like? Was it as blatant and obvious as a church teacher plopping down an idol in front of the congregation and telling them to worship it? What we have to understand is business in the city of Thyatira was conducted through a confederation of trade guilds or unions. If you wanted to do business in the city, you were supposed to be a part of one of these guilds and attend their meetings. These meetings were often held in one of the pagan temples and consisted of sacrificing meat to idols and participating in drunken orgies. This quote sheds more light on the situation:

So [Christians] had to make a choice. It was difficult to live in Thyatira for this very reason. But apparently Jezebel had begun to teach that it was all right for them to go along with the requirements of the guild, that they needed to submit to the pressures of the world around in order to make a living, and that God would understand and overlook this. Her philosophy was what you often hear today: “Business is business.” If business practices collide with your Christian principles, then your principles have to go — because you have to make a living. Have you ever heard that argument? (Ray Stedman. “Thyatira: The Worldly Church”)

Jesus closes his letter by once again encouraging the members of the church who have not been fooled by this trap: “I will ask nothing more of you except that you hold tightly to what you have until I come. To all who are victorious, who obey me to the very end… They will have the same authority I received from my Father, and I will also give them the morning star!” (vs. 24-28, NLT). I love how Jesus promises to give the overcomer the “morning star.” From Revelation 22:16, we know that Christ is the Bright and Morning Star. Jesus is promising to give us nothing less than Himself!

With a promise like that, I think we are all encouraged to continue to “hold tightly” to what we have in Jesus! That is our surest protection.