Mark 4:1-25 – Are you listening?

In case you haven’t noticed, Jesus is very busy in the Gospel of Mark. Over the last couple of chapters, Jesus has been constantly on the move — from the city, to the lakeshore, to the grain fields, to the synagogue, to the lake again, to a mountain, to a house, and now back to the lake yet again. Notice that Jesus is no longer teaching in the synagogue. He makes a sharp departure from the orthodox methods of His day. Now, from a gently swaying boat, Jesus teaches His first parable in Mark 4:1-20. As we study the parable of the sower, I want to share the entire passage with you below. Please take time to read the complete excerpt so that we can make some careful observations together.

1 Once again Jesus began teaching by the lakeshore. A very large crowd soon gathered around him, so he got into a boat. Then he sat in the boat while all the people remained on the shore. 2 He taught them by telling many stories in the form of parables, such as this one:

3 “Listen! A farmer went out to plant some seed. 4 As he scattered it across his field, some of the seed fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate it. 5 Other seed fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seed sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. 6 But the plant soon wilted under the hot sun, and since it didn’t have deep roots, it died. 7 Other seed fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants so they produced no grain. 8 Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they sprouted, grew, and produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted!” 9 Then he said, “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.”

10 Later, when Jesus was alone with the twelve disciples and with the others who were gathered around, they asked him what the parables meant. 11 He replied, “You are permitted to understand the secret of the Kingdom of God. But I use parables for everything I say to outsiders, 12 so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled:

‘When they see what I do,
they will learn nothing.
When they hear what I say,
they will not understand.
Otherwise, they will turn to me
and be forgiven.’” [*See my side note on this in comments section.]

13 Then Jesus said to them, “If you can’t understand the meaning of this parable, how will you understand all the other parables? 14 The farmer plants seed by taking God’s word to others. 15 The seed that fell on the footpath represents those who hear the message, only to have Satan come at once and take it away. 16 The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. 17 But since they don’t have deep roots, they don’t last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God’s word. 18 The seed that fell among the thorns represents others who hear God’s word, 19 but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life, the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things, so no fruit is produced. 20 And the seed that fell on good soil represents those who hear and accept God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!” (Mark 4:1-20, NLT)

What is your initial reaction to reading this parable? What do you think Jesus’ big point is here? I had always read this passage and thought that Jesus was simply explaining the fact that some people would be real believers of the gospel and others would not. However, as I reflect more closely on this passage, I now believe Jesus is actually setting the stage for a very important development in His ministry. It is not coincidental that the Parable of the Sower is the first (formal) parable in each of the three synoptic Gospel accounts, and the placement of the parable plays a particularly interesting role in the Gospel of Mark. Notice that in the passages leading up to and following this parable, Mark places special emphasis on the almost-universal unbelief of the people, even among Jesus’ own family and followers (see for example verse 13, also 8:17-21). So, with this parable, Jesus is actually assessing the situation at hand and confronting his listeners with a decision that they each must make.

According to Christ’s parable, every individual’s belief or unbelief will come down to one simple factor: Are you actually listening? Notice in our passage that Jesus emphasizes derivatives of the word “listen” or “hear” no less than seven times. Throughout Scripture, these words carry much more weight than our English usage of the terms. To really “hear” what Jesus is saying is not merely to intellectually acknowledge what you have heard, but to carefully consider with a receptive heart, being willing to assimilate it into your very life. It means you’re ready to take action. Notice how the next few verses read (in the NKJV this time):

21 Also He said to them, “Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed? Is it not to be set on a lampstand? 22 For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”
24 Then He said to them, “Take heed what you hear. With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given. 25 For whoever has, to him more will be given; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.” (Mark 4:21-25, NKJV)

I like how the New Living Translation further clarifies the last part of that passage:

“Pay close attention to what you hear. The closer you listen, the more understanding you will be given—and you will receive even more. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them.” (vss. 24-25, NLT)

“Therefore consider carefully how you listen…” is how the NIV puts it. If you’re actually listening to someone, that means you’re not the one doing the talking. It means you’re not running, fighting, striving, resisting, arguing, or trying to get your own word in edgewise. We can’t just halfheartedly hear Jesus’ words with our ears and expect the seeds to stick. Only when we are really listening with open hearts, defenses down, can the words of the Gospel be truly sown in our souls. There, as we allow the Living Word to be planted in the soil of our heart and embedded in the fabric of our being, will the seeds begin to germinate and grow and bring forth a new harvest of fruit in our lives. That’s how we will know what kind of soil we have!

“And with many such parables spoke he the word to them, as they were able to hear it.” (Mark 4:33, AKJV).

 

…Are you listening?

 

 

 

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Mark 3:20-35 – The Family of God

Then the multitude came together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread. But when His own people heard about this, they went out to lay hold of Him, for they said, “He is out of His mind.” (Mark 3:20-21, NJKV).

It isn’t too difficult to see why Jesus’ family thought he was crazy. Jesus had thrown away a steady career and any hope of financial security. He was assaulting the socio-religious order of his day. His so-called followers were comprised of crude fishermen, tax collectors, and other disreputable individuals. And He was basically generating a mob of people wherever He stepped foot. It’s not hard to see the family’s point of view! I feel that Jesus’ example, however, serves as a reminder to us that we, too, may be called to do things that may look to well-meaning friends and family like we are also “out of our minds.” At least we can know that we are in good company. 🙂

“And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebub,’ and, ‘By the ruler of the demons He casts out demons’” (vs. 22). The family simply thinks that Jesus is crazy, but the religious rulers accuse Jesus of something far more insidious. In their viewpoint, the only explanation for Jesus’ unprecedented spiritual power is that He must be in alliance with Satan himself.

So He called them to Himself and said to them in parables: “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand… No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. And then he will plunder his house.” (Mark 3:23-27)

In His response, Jesus first points out the logical fault in the scribes’ accusation. Next, Jesus pulls back the veil on what is actually going on in the unseen spiritual realm. Satan seeks to control his dominion as a strong man guards his house, but One who is stronger is actually in the process of binding Satan in order to plunder his goods and release his captives! And that should be very, very good news for us!

As Jesus continues His response, however, He makes a subsequent statement that has left many unsettled and disturbed: “’Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation’— because they said, ‘He has an unclean spirit'” (vss. 28-30).

What is Jesus talking about here? Is a word or thought of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit really the unpardonable sin? Most theologians agree that the “unpardonable sin” is understood in Scripture as a continual (rather than a one-time) rejection of God’s influence on our lives. It is a repeated “grieving” of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30) to the point that we are no longer even capable of discerning God’s voice in our hearts—to the point that our consciences become “seared with a hot iron” (1 Timothy 4:2; see also 1 Thessalonians 5:19). In our churches, we almost always discuss this topic in the context of obedience and avoiding sin. Now, while I don’t necessarily disagree with that premise, I think Jesus is actually making a slightly different point here that we don’t want to miss. Mark here makes a very clear connection between Jesus’ warning about the unforgivable sin and the Pharisees’ accusation of Jesus’ power originating from Beelzebub. So what the Pharisees are actually being condemned for here is that they were looking directly at a manifestation of God’s power and calling it the working of Satan! That means that Jesus is sternly warning His listeners (us) that we can also be in danger of grieving the Holy Spirit anytime we see at an outworking of God’s power and yet condemn it as a manifestation of evil!  Interestingly enough, in the parallel passage in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus drives this point even further by adding: “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37). The Greek term here for “idle word” (rema argos) can also be rendered “unprofitable word,” and, in our passage’s context, this would encompass unjustly condemning or accusatory words as well. Among other things, Jesus’ statement should be a sobering warning for us to be slow in judgment when our brothers and sisters in Christ do something differently than us, whether in worship style or faith practices. Just because something doesn’t fit nicely into our narrow theological “God box,” doesn’t mean the Spirit isn’t working… Rather, we should always carefully examine the “fruit” (Matthew 12:33) while prayerfully “dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

Then His brothers and His mother came, and standing outside they sent to Him, calling Him. And a multitude was sitting around Him; and they said to Him, “Look, Your mother and Your brothers are outside seeking You.” But He answered them, saying, “Who is My mother, or My brothers?” And He looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him, and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35)

This last passage of chapter 3 focuses in again on the disapproval of Jesus’ family. Jesus uses this opportunity to point out that a new life in Christ can sometimes mean the loss of earthly relationships. (Jesus makes similar statements in Luke 14:26 and Matthew 10:35.) But rather than focusing on the possibility of loss, I want us to see the beautiful promise of new relationships that Jesus is offering. Jesus is extending an invitation to be a part of the very family of God! In fact, I like to imagine that I am sitting in that very circle as Jesus looks at each individual around Him and says, “Look, here are My mother and My brothers and My sisters!” It’s an invitation that Jesus is still offering each of us. And it’s an invitation to a reality that doesn’t have to wait until heaven. Jesus is willing and ready to make good on the offer today!

“Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s,  who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30)

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 that others don’t. 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? After all, 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

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 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’

“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.