Mark 4:26-34 – Seeds of the Kingdom

Jesus said, “How can I describe the Kingdom of God? What story should I use to illustrate it?” (Mark 4:30)

Humor me and try this exercise with me: If you were asked to describe the term “kingdom” to a four-year old, how would you do it? What kinds of words would you use? I for one would use adjectives of strength, might, and authority! I’d try to convey the idea of control and and power. But that’s not what Jesus did, did He? No, instead of palaces, fortresses, and armies, Jesus redirects His listener’s gaze downward, to the tiniest of seeds…

Jesus also said, “The Kingdom of God is like a farmer who scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, while he’s asleep or awake, the seed sprouts and grows, but he does not understand how it happens. The earth produces the crops on its own. First a leaf blade pushes through, then the heads of wheat are formed, and finally the grain ripens. And as soon as the grain is ready, the farmer comes and harvests it with a sickle, for the harvest time has come.” (Mark 4:27-29, NLT)

There are a couple of points that stick out to me here. First of all, Jesus seems to be using this parable to dispel the illusion of control that we have of God’s kingdom-building process. No matter how hard we try—no matter how badly we want to—we can’t make a seed germinate. We can’t force the seed to grow or sprout. In fact, we don’t even really “understand” how the whole process work. For all we know, that seed is dead, hopelessly buried away forever… Until one day, we begin to see the first inkling of life, that very first green blade, begin to peep through the surface! The process is mysterious and miraculous. Even at the first sign of growth, however, we may have to wait much longer than we would want until the next stage of development is reached. We often try to speed up the process on ourselves (especially on others!), but, that’s not our job. That’s up to Someone Else. Which leads me to my second observation: We’re not in control of the seed’s growth, but we can help scatter the seeds. Notice that word scatter. It’s definition is “to throw in various random directions.” This means we’re supposed to be out there in the world liberally dispersing seeds of hope, love, comfort, generosity, and witness of the gospel message everywhere we go! Finally, in addition to assisting with the nurturing and protection of the seeds, we then get to help harvest them!

Jesus said, “How can I describe the Kingdom of God? What story should I use to illustrate it? It is like a mustard seed planted in the ground. It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of all garden plants; it grows long branches, and birds can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32, NLT)

Jesus’ words here remind me that I shouldn’t be discouraged when I don’t always see the big, spectacular “God things” in my life. We may think we’re missing out on the dramatic faith moments in our lives–it seems I’m always reading about them in others’ lives, after all. But the truth is that God promises to take and work with the small mustard seeds in our own unique life journey. We just need to be willing to offer and surrender what little we do have. That way, over time, He can nurture and grow the small, seemingly-insignificant seeds into big things for His kingdom.

Likewise, the next time we’re tempted to discount ourselves or someone else, exasperatedly giving it all up as a “hopeless cause,” we should again remember this parable. The mustard seed grows invisibly, gradually, yet steadily. It keeps us guessing. We never quite know what exactly God is up to. Until one day the tiniest of seeds grows into the largest of trees, spreading its branches and offering its leaves in shelter and nourishment to those around it. With God, what once seemed impossible becomes miraculously possible.

No wonder seeds were one of Jesus’ favorite kingdom illustrations! They remind us of the need for ceaseless patience and unwavering trust. It’s not a question of whether something is possible or not with God. It’s a question of whether we’re willing to stick around long enough to see the final result.

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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?

 

 

 

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 gaining new relationships which 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 and every 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 3:7-19 – “That they might be with Him”

But Jesus withdrew with His disciples to the sea. And a great multitude from Galilee followed Him… So He told His disciples that a small boat should be kept ready for Him because of the multitude, lest they should crush Him. For He healed many, so that as many as had afflictions pressed about Him to touch Him. (Mark 3:7-10, NKJV)

We like to think of of the ministry of Jesus as being characterized by the tender miracles of healing, the thoughtful teachings on a peaceful mountainside. But this passage reminds us that the ministry of Christ was not always a pleasant affair to be a part of. Jesus was essentially mobbed everywhere He went. People smothered Him—seizing, grabbing, grasping at Him! He even had to take precautions so that the multitude wouldn’t trample Him! Sometimes it’s not pretty for us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus either. We’re called into messy situations; we sometimes have to get involved with dysfunctional people and sticky relationships. However, whatever the challenges we might be facing on our path, we can know that our faithful Master has gone before us.

And the unclean spirits, whenever they saw Him, fell down before Him and cried out, saying, “You are the Son of God.” But He sternly warned them that they should not make Him known. (Mark 3:11-12, NKJV)

This is a good place to discuss an important thematic element in the book of Mark which is sometimes referred to as the “Messianic Secret.” Why is Jesus so insistent that His identity as the Messiah not be publicly revealed? We saw this peculiar situation for the first time in Mark 1:43-45 when Jesus heals the leper and instructs him not to tell anyone. Other examples can be seen in our Mark 3:12 passage, as well as in Mark 5:43; 7:36; 8:26; 8:30; and 9:9. What could be the reason for all of this? What we have to remember is that we are the “privileged reader” in Mark’s Gospel narrative— we have “inside information” about Jesus’ identity. At this point in the Markan story, only Jesus, John the Baptist, and we as the reader know of the heavenly voice which spoke, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). So this information is not yet public knowledge, and Jesus apparently does not want it to be. Why? We have to remember what the arrival of the Messiah was believed to mean by the Jewish nation. The Messiah was understood to be a conquering warrior, a hero that would mobilize a full-scale rebellion and defeat the Roman oppressors, ushering in a new socio-political reign of Jewish independence. And yet Jesus comes as as a suffering servant, the misunderstood Son of God. The Jewish people—even Jesus’ own disciples—are simply not ready to receive their Messiah as a suffering Servant-King. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, NLT). The “messianic secret” of Jesus will continue to act as a one of the primary themes throughout the Gospel of Mark, climaxing in the Confession of Peter in chapter 8, verses 27-30.

We continue reading in verses 13-19:

And He went up on the mountain and called to Him those He Himself wanted. And they came to Him. Then He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses and to cast out demons: Simon, to whom He gave the name Peter; James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James, to whom He gave the name Boanerges, that is, “Sons of Thunder”; Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew [or Nathaniel], Matthew [or Levi], Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus [or Jude or Judas], Simon the Cananite [or the Zealot]; and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed Him. (Mark 3:13-19, NKJV)

Jesus now begins the official inauguration of His kingdom. As theologian William Barclay writes, “It is significant that Christianity began with a group. The Christian faith is something which from the beginning had to be discovered and lived out in a fellowship.” But why this particular group? Fishermen, tax collectors, revolutionaries… What in the world was Jesus thinking? What could He possibly hope to do with this ragtag group of social misfits? Despite their different backgrounds and different viewpoints, the one all-important attribute that these men all shared in common was that they were with Jesus. “They would have their tests, their grievances, their differences of opinion; but while Christ was abiding in the heart, there could be no dissension. His love would lead to love for one another” (E. G. White). In the context of community, Christ’s love would transform these men (those of them who were willing) from the inside out.

And Jesus called them not to be His slaves or His subordinates, but to be His friends…

They were very ordinary men. By our standards of judgment, not a single one of them would have been considered disciple material. Tax collectors. Fishermen, peasants, simple folk, unlettered for the most part with no special qualifications. But as Christ chose them He was seeing, not so much what they were, as what they were to become. The clue to their selection was that they were to be with Him. That was the beginning of their development and their transformation. He created a fellowship which was a deep content for Him, but for them was all in all…. For three years they saw with their eyes and heard with their ears. They heard the music of His voice. They watched His slow smile. They saw the sunlight dancing on His hair. They saw Him perform miracles. They heard Him tell unforgettable parables. He told them that when they had seen Him they had seen the Father.

And then same ebbing popularity and the shadow of the Cross. Was their fellowship to end with His death? Their testimony is that it did not—that the fellowship not only survived death, but was consummated after it through His Resurrection. It is an astounding claim to make. They claim that in the days between the Resurrection and the ascension Jesus established this friendship so that it would be available to men in all ages. (Dr. Peter Marshall)

He called to Him those He Himself wanted. And they came to Him. He chose them, that they might be with Him… The truth, friends, is that Jesus is still choosing… He is calling each one of us, even now, that we too might be with Him. The question is, will we come to Him?

 

Mark 2:1-3:6 – The Kingdom Agenda

The events of Mark chapter 2 (and part of chapter 3) are meant to show us what Jesus’ kingdom agenda is all about. It’s an agenda that is revealed by way of direct contrast with the counter-agenda of the established religious order. Jesus is here to turn the paradigm of religion upside down! After studying this chapter for a number of weeks, I finally noticed the fascinating common structure to the “controversy passages” that take place in these verses. For this particular blog entry, I just wanted to explore some of these study notes together. Let’s take a look:

Jesus forgives/heals a paralytic, Mark 2:1-12

  • The Pharisees’ accusatory question: “Why does this Man speak blasphemies?”
  • Jesus’s response, as a question: “Why do you reason like this in your hearts?”
  • Key points: Jesus demonstrates His divine power to forgive as well as to heal. He also claims the messianic title, “The Son of Man.”

Jesus attends a feast with sinners, Mark 2:15-17

  • Accusation: “Why does He associate with sinners?”
  • Response: “I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” (NLT)
  • Key points: Jesus shows that sinners are accepted by God, thus deeply threatening the socio-religious constructs that the Pharisees have imposed.

Jesus’ disciples do not fast along with Pharisees, Mark 2:18-22

  • Accusation: “Why don’t your disciples fast?”
  • Response, as a question: “Can a bridegroom’s friends fast while he’s with them?”
  • Key points: By implication, Jesus is ominously warning the Pharisees that they themselves are missing out on God’s great wedding feast. And there is no place for meaningless, self-imposed religious rituals. The old system, the old spirit, cannot live on with the new. “New wine cannot be put into old wineskins.”

Jesus’ disciples pluck grain to eat on the Sabbath, Mark 2:23-28

  • Accusation: “Why do your disciples do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”
  • Response, as a question: “Haven’t you read what David did when he was hungry?”
  • Key points: Human need is always the most important factor in God’s eyes. As the Son of Man, Jesus claims divine lordship over the Sabbath and frees it of its burdensome, man-made restrictions. Echoing back to the creation account, Christ places the Sabbath back in its proper relationship to mankind within God’s Law — as a gift from our Creator for our enjoyment and spiritual/physical renewal.

Jesus heals a man’s hand on the Sabbath, Mark 3:1-6

  • This healing miracle/controversy acts as a chiastic counterpart to the first miracle in Mark 2. Once again, the Pharisees do not make a verbal allegation against Jesus, but they “watch Him closely so that they could accuse Him.” Jesus responds once again with a pointed, motive-exposing question: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”
  • Notice the parallel language with the prior Sabbath controversy: The Pharisees accuse Christ’s disciples of doing “what is not lawful” on the Sabbath, but now Jesus turns their own accusation around on them, exposing what is truly “not lawful” in God’s eyes.
  • This is also the second time in Mark’s Gospel that we read of Christ experiencing strong emotions. In Mark 1:41, we read that Jesus was “moved with compassion” (splagchnizomai) and now we read that Jesus looks around “with anger, being grieved by the hardness of their hearts” (3:5, NKJV). Other versions read the He was “deeply hurt”, “sorrowful”, “saddened”, “distressed” at the “callousness of their hearts.” I think we sometimes think of Jesus as placid, controlled, and stoic, that He lived above the volatility of human emotions. But I believe these passages show us the Christ experienced the depths of human sorrow, anger, and joy on a scale more extreme than we might ever be able to imagine.
  • Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him” (verse 6). The implicit irony here is strong. The Pharisees despised the Herodians (supporters of Herod), considering them corrupt sell-outs. Yet, the two opposing sects come together in their unified purpose of destroying Jesus. It is also darkly ironic that, on the sacred Sabbath day, these two groups “immediately” went out and began to plot how to kill their own Messiah. “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”

So what do we learn from all of this? Jesus is here to forgive the unforgivable, heal the untouchable, call the unwanted, and befriend the friendless. He’s here to turn religion on its head and redefine what it really means to live out the Law of God. Despite the mounting opposition, in the coming section of Mark chapter 3, we will see Jesus officially inaugurate His kingdom in the appointment of the twelve apostles.

Mark 2:15-22 – New Wineskins

Now it happened, as He was dining in Levi’s house, that many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him. And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, “How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:15-16,NKJV)

Before we go any further, I want to pause for a second on a line from verse 15: “and sinners also sat together with Jesus…” Just reflect with me for a moment on what this verse really means! We have a Savior who is not afraid to associate Himself with sinners! He’s not afraid of our dirt; we don’t have to worry about making Him uncomfortable with our baggage. That’s good news, isn’t it? BUT, at the same time, Christ has a very determined purpose in this interaction, as shown by His response to the scribes: “When Jesus heard it, He said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance’” (vs. 17, NKJV). Jesus’ purpose is to call us to repentance and to bring healing to our lives. Sometimes we’re quick to jump on the first part of Christ’s response — so that we can put those self-righteous snobs in their place! However, we must never forget our own desperate need of healing life transformation. I appreciate how the New Living Translation renders this passage: “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” Theologian William Barclay further expands on this point:

Mark 2:17 is a highly concentrated verse. It sounds at first hearing as if Jesus had no use for good people. But the point of it is that the one person for whom Jesus can do nothing is the person who thinks himself so good that he does not need anything done for him; and the one person for whom Jesus can do everything is the person who is a sinner and knows it and who longs in his heart for a cure. To have no sense of need is to have erected a barrier between us and Jesus; to have a sense of need is to possess the passport to his presence. (Barclay’s Daily Study Bible, Mark)

Jesus’ actions here are of course deeply threatening to the socio-religious constructs that the scribes and Pharisees have worked so hard to erect, and in the next scene cut, Jesus is once again at the center of religious controversy. We pick up in verse 18: “Once when John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, some people came to Jesus and asked, ‘Why don’t your disciples fast like John’s disciples and the Pharisees do?’” You see, in Christ’s day, the Pharisees went far beyond the Torah’s prescribed yearly fasts and actually practiced fasting on a regular weekly basis. When the Pharisees fasted, they would wear tattered, disheveled garments and would even whiten their faces so that it would be unmistakably obvious that they were fasting. This, of course, was all done for public show, so that the common people would admire the Pharisees’ austerity. That’s why Jesus would later teach, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting” (Matthew 6:16, NIV). So in our Markan passage, it is apparently one of these self-imposed fasting cycles that Jesus and His disciples are accused of not observing. Let’s read Christ’s response to the confrontation:

Jesus replied, “Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. They can’t fast while the groom is with them. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.
“Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before.
“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.” (Mark 2:19-22, NLT)

For his first counter-example, Jesus picks the most joyous occasion in the Jewish culture. Wedding celebrations would go on for days of feasting and partying! Custom forbade participants from fasting during this time so that nothing would risk spoiling the joyful mood of the occasion. So by implication, Jesus is basically warning the Pharisees that if they don’t recalibrate their thinking—if they remain stuck in their “old wineskin” mentality—they’re going to miss out on God’s own great wedding feast! The Bridegroom of Israel is present, living and walking among them, and they don’t even have a clue. How very, very sad… I am reminded of this excerpt from E.G. White which I find here to be particularly meaningful:

The Prince of heaven was among His people. The greatest gift of God had been given to the world. Joy to the poor; for Christ had come to make them heirs of His kingdom. Joy to the rich; for He would teach them how to secure eternal riches. Joy to the ignorant; He would make them wise unto salvation. Joy to the learned; He would open to them deeper mysteries than they had ever fathomed; truths that had been hidden from the foundation of the world would be opened to men by the Saviour’s mission.

John the Baptist had rejoiced to behold the Saviour. What occasion for rejoicing had the disciples who were privileged to walk and talk with the Majesty of heaven! This was not a time for them to mourn and fast. They must open their hearts to receive the light of His glory, that they might shed light upon those who sat in darkness and in the shadow of death. (White, The Desire of Ages)

You know, the more I have studied this passage in Mark, the more convicted I have felt lately to reflect and ask myself: Where in my life could I be missing out on “God’s party next door”? All because I’m stuck in an “old wineskin” mentality and spirit? Where in my heart do I need to allow God to recreate me into a new wineskin, so that I can receive the fresh blessings and the new opportunities that His Spirit wants to pour out on me? 

As we approach the end of Mark chapter 2, we see that this chapter was written to teach us that the old garment can’t just be “patched up.” The old cynical, judgmental mode of thinking which seeks to exclude people who don’t measure up to our biased standards… The old legalistic approach to religion which seeks to impose burdensome, man-made rules in our relationship with God… These old attitudes, biases, and prejudices have absolutely no place in the New Kingdom that Christ is here to proclaim! “New wine calls for new wineskins.”

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… 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” on our way to somewhere else. 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