Mark 6:1-9 – Scandalized by Grace

Jesus Rejected at Nazareth

1 Jesus left that part of the country and returned with his disciples to Nazareth, his hometown. The next Sabbath he began teaching in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. They asked, “Where did he get all this wisdom and the power to perform such miracles?” Then they scoffed, “He’s just a carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. And his sisters live right here among us.” They were deeply offended and refused to believe in him.

Then Jesus told them, “A prophet is honored everywhere except in his own hometown and among his relatives and his own family.” And because of their unbelief, he couldn’t do any miracles among them except to place his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. (Mark 6:1-6, NLT)

After his traveling circuit, Jesus returns to his hometown where we would expect the now-famous Rabbi to be welcomed by His old neighbors and friends. However, instead Jesus is met with scorn and ridicule. Who does he think he is? He’s just a carpenter, the son of Mary… This statement contained a two-pronged insult. One, by calling Jesus out as a carpenter, they were bringing attention to the fact that Jesus had maintained a lower-class occupation in His early life. Two, by identifying Jesus as the “son of Mary,” they were mocking the “questionable” nature of Jesus’ birth.

“They were skandalizō by him”–they were scandalized by him–“and refused to believe in him” (verse 3). I wonder, is there anything that “scandalizes” us about who Jesus is today? Perhaps the audacity of His birth, death, and resurrection story? Or the unapologetically radical nature of His teachings? What about the kinds of people Jesus chooses to work through or interest our lives with? What about the limitless grace that He dares to offer those who we know least deserve it?

And he was amazed at their unbelief” (verse 6). The only two times we read of Jesus being amazed is, one, at the unexpected faith of a Gentile (Matthew 8:10) and here, at the astounding unbelief of his own people. We also learn here that God’s work in our lives can be stagnated and stalled by our unbelief: “And because of their unbelief, he couldn’t do any miracles among them…” (verse 5) I’ve heard it said, God can work with no belief, but he can’t work with unbelief! Perhaps this is one of the reasons we don’t see God’s mighty works in so many of our churches today.

I don’t know about you but this passage makes me reflect and ask myself: Where in my life might I have caused Jesus “to be amazed”? Was it because of my surprising faith in an unexpected situation? Or was it because of my consistently astounding capacity for unbelief in the most obvious circumstances of God’s providence in my life? (More likely the latter, I think. Thankfully we serve and incredibly patient God!)

Jesus Sends Out the Twelve Disciples

Then Jesus went from village to village, teaching the people. And he called his twelve disciples together and began sending them out two by two, giving them authority to cast out evil spirits. He told them to take nothing for their journey except a walking stick—no food, no traveler’s bag, no money. He allowed them to wear sandals but not to take a change of clothes.

10 “Wherever you go,” he said, “stay in the same house until you leave town. 11 But if any place refuses to welcome you or listen to you, shake its dust from your feet as you leave to show that you have abandoned those people to their fate.”

12 So the disciples went out, telling everyone they met to repent of their sins and turn to God. 13 And they cast out many demons and healed many sick people, anointing them with olive oil. (Mark 6:6-9, NLT)

I think it’s interesting that our story, without missing a beat, moves so quickly from a place of rejection to a platform of projection. The Gospel of Chris will not be stymied or obstructed or defeated by rejection, and neither should we! Now, there are a couple of significant observations from this passage. First of all, by instructing His disciples to pack nothing for their journey, Jesus was asking them to trust in the hospitality of the villagers they would meet along their way. (In that Middle Eastern culture, offering hospitality to travelers was a sacred responsibility!) In fact, in the longer account of Matthew 10, Jesus further tells his disciples to find a worthy home in a village and to remain there the entire time, cultivating as much as possible the newfound friendships with their hosting family. Theologian William Barclay makes a keen observation:

It was the Rabbinic law that when a man entered the Temple courts he must put off his staff and shoes and money girdle. All ordinary things were to be set aside on entering the sacred place. It may well be that Jesus was thinking of this, and that he meant his men to see that the humble homes they were to enter were every bit as sacred as the Temple courts. (William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible)

The disciples’ task on their journey was twofold: 1.) to proclaim Christ’s message of repentance, and 2.) to act as ministers of mercy in whatever village they arrived in. The purpose of Christ has always been to bring healing to the entire being–both soul and body. As His vessels of mercy, our commission is to do the same. Let’s again read the words of William Barclay’s insightful commentary:

To the people they brought the King’s mercy. Not only did they bring this shattering demand upon men; they brought also help and healing. They brought liberation to poor, demon-possessed men and women. From the beginning Christianity has aimed to bring health to body and to soul; it has always aimed not only at soul salvation, but at whole salvation. It brought not only a hand to lift from moral wreckage, but a hand to lift from physical pain and suffering. It is most suggestive that they anointed with oil. In the ancient world oil was regarded as a panacea… In the hands of the servants of Christ the old cures acquired a new virtue… the power of God became available in common things to the faith of men.

When we think of Jesus’ stern warning to abandon unbelieving towns “to their fate,” I think that warning makes more sense when we consider the disciples’ mission in the context of what Barclay just shared above. They were to be vessels of liberation and healing for these villages, for both body and soul. For a community to reject such a beautiful overture, such a marvelous invitation, is truly an affront for which there is no atonement possible. “I tell you the truth, the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah will be better off than such a town on the judgment day.” (Matthew 10:15).

What a sad realization that we have the capacity to stand and look Love directly in the eye only to turn around and walk away, scandalized by a concept of Grace that is too big, too close, too simple for us to believe.

 

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.

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 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’

John 15 – Abiding in the Vine

I hope each of you are being blessed this week! I’d love to take the opportunity to share some of our highlights from Stepping Stones on John 15 this week, so let’s dive right in.

Some of the most beautiful scriptural references can be found in John 15 and, in particular, we find Jesus’ profound illustration of the vine and the branches. Clay led our discussion and brought out the fascinating point that the disciples had spent the last three and a half years with Jesus thinking that they were the vine, that they had the responsibility of generating the sap needed to produce the fruit of good works and more disciples. After all, we find many references in the Old Testament comparing the Israelite nation to a vine or a vineyard. (See Psalm 80:8 and Jeremiah 2:21, for example.) But then Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser…and you are the branches” (John 15:1-5). Christ wanted to take his disciples through a radical paradigm shift: “He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (verse 5).

As we take some time to step back and consider this awesome truth, let’s think about our responsibilities in this relationship. As a branch connected to the vine, do we need to tell the vine when we need more sap? Perhaps when we’re ready to grow more fruit? No! All we need to do is abide ­- to stay connected! The Vine takes care of everything else. When it really comes down to it, this illustration spells out the difference between salvation by works and salvation by faith. When we realize that there is absolutely nothing we can bring to God but that instead that we receive everything from Him, we discover what it truly means to rest and abide in His love and redemption.

At the same time, however, we also read verse 2: “and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” That sounds a little unconformable, doesn’t it? Maybe even a little scary? It makes me, for one, worry that I simply won’t be up to the task when the season of pruning comes. But Clay shared a really neat story about a time when he had the opportunity to observe the vineyard and orchard workers in California. As he watched the workers go through the laborious processes of pruning and grafting, he paid particular attention to the branches. It was then that he realized that the branches did absolutely nothing the entire time! Everything depended on the skill and mastery of the vinedresser. Even in the rather dramatic grafting process, he noticed that it was not the branch but the Vine that was cut open and “wounded” to receive the new member into itself. Friends, we know that God will sometimes allow us to go through trials and tough times so that we can grow in Him, and sometimes it’s very uncomfortable. But we can rest easy and trust in the skill and tenderness of the Master Vinedresser – no matter what life throws our way!

I hope you have a wonderful rest of the week. And don’t forget to keep abiding and stay connected!