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 (agents 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.

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

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

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

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

The Tabernacle

In Exodus chapters 25 through 30, God outlines to the Hebrews what a holy community in His Presence will look like. In this plan, God will use a very special physical structure, the tabernacle, as the access point for His Presence among His people. To begin with, the entire Israelite family is invited to participate in the preparation of this sacred tent. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell the people of Israel to bring me their sacred offerings. Accept the contributions from all whose hearts are moved to offer them'” (Exodus 25:1-2, NLT). A couple of important points here. 1.) The people must offer the very best of what they had. 2.) The people were only to give from a willing heart – no begrudged, obligatory offering was to be accepted. 3.) The needed gifts outlined in verses 2-7 were broad and diverse. Everything from pure gold to common goats hair would be needed for this project! These points should remind us of a few things when it comes to ministry in God’s service, don’t you think?

The chapter goes on to describe the special articles of furniture in the sanctuary. First and foremost, we read about the Ark of the Covenant which was placed in the Most Holy Place. This special case would house the law of God, the Ten Commandments engraved in stone. The box would be covered by an intricately-crafted cover, known as the “atonement cover” or the “mercy seat.” “I will meet with you there,” God says to Moses, “and talk to you from above the atonement cover between the gold cherubim that hover over the Ark of the Covenant. From there I will give you my commands for the people of Israel” (Exodus 25:22, NLT). One commentator points out here how incredibly surprising this arrangement was. You see, the Hebrews were surrounded by pagan cultures which built grand, elaborate temples to their gods. These temples would house massive and impressive statues of the various gods. “Yet, here was Yahweh telling Moses to build a tabernacle and He would meet them in the empty space between the angels above the Ark. No image or idol of Yahweh was to be constructed. Yahweh could not be reduced or reproduced” (Steve Rodeheaver, Exodus Talks: Pastoral Devotionals from Exodus, CRI/Voice, Institute). God’s Presence resided in the empty space above–not inside–the ark! Just as Yahweh’s very name (“I AM THAT I AM”) defies any sense of boundary or restriction, so His Presence cannot and will not be contained in our narrow boxes or controlled by our capricious demands.

Three other furniture items lived in the Holy Place of the sanctuary – the Table of the Bread of Presence, the Lampstand (also known as the Menorah), and the Altar of Incense. Each of these represented God’s Presence and relationship with the Hebrew community, and each of these items also symbolize vital aspects of our Christian walk today. The Bread of the Presence, for example, reminded Israel of their constant dependence on God’s provision, and it ultimately pointed forward to Jesus Christ: “I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35). I like to compare the Bread of Presence in my own life with time spent reading God’s Word and enjoying His fellowship, remembering that “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4, NET).

The Lampstand was to provide continuous light in the Tabernacle tent. It was to be intricately decorated like an almond tree. In Hebrew, the word for “almond” and the word “watchful” sound almost identical. We can observe this clever play on of words in Jeremiah 1:11-12: “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Look, Jeremiah! What do you see?’ And I replied, ‘I see a branch from an almond tree.’ And the Lord said, ‘That’s right, and it means that I am watching, and I will certainly carry out all my plans.'” The Lampstand, then, would remind Israel of the LORD’s ceaseless watchfulness and care. From my own life-application perspective, I feel that the Lampstand of my heart’s sanctuary is lit whenever I share the love of Christ or reflect His character to those around me. (See Matthew 5:13-16, John 8:12, Ephesians 5:7-14, and 2 Corinthians 3:18.) For yourself, what do you compare the Lampstand with in your spiritual walk?

The last piece of furniture was the Altar of Incense. It was to be placed directly outside of the Most Holy Place so that its incense-laden vapors could waft over the curtain into God’s Shekinah Presence. Revelation 8:4 reminds us that incense symbolizes the prayers of God’s people. I like how one commentator expounds upon this:

While the priest could not see through the curtain into Yahweh’s Presence, he could be assured that the fragrance of the incense passed through the curtain and permeated the air that Yahweh was breathing. We like to think of ourselves as becoming filled with the breath or Spirit of God. Here we have God breathing/inhaling the prayers of our lives. Imagine that. God breathing in the prayers and cries of our hearts, and then breathing out His Spirit upon and within us in response to those cries. Often times God seems removed, out of sight, perhaps even beyond reach. But the fragrance of our lives rises before God in prayer, penetrating the curtains of heaven. (Steve Rodeheaver, Exodus Talks: Pastoral Devotionals from Exodus, CRI/Voice, Institute)

The one final point that really struck me about the design of the tabernacle was the fact every piece of it was intended for travel. So much is written about the poles and the specifics of how the articles were to be transported. God really meant it when He said He would dwell–move in–with His people. He was ready to go all the way them, wherever they journeyed! That must also say something about how serious God is when He says to us, “Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them; for the Lord your God, He is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). I pray that this powerful reminder will bless your day as much as it has mine.

“That I may dwell among them”

“And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.”
(Exodus 25:8)

When we studied Exodus 24 last time together, we read of the seemingly-insurmountable rift of separation between God and the people. In fact in verses 1-2, God even says, “All of you must worship from a distance. Only Moses is allowed to come near to the Lord. The others must not come near, and none of the other people are allowed to climb up the mountain with him” (Exodus 24:1-2, NLT). The situation seems pretty clear cut. God is holy. The people are not. Therefore, both parties will never be able to exist in each other’s presence. But when we move to Exodus 25, we begin to grasp the amazing realization that God actually had a plan this entire time to close that distance and breach that barrier of separation. Before the fall, mankind enjoyed complete, unhindered fellowship with their Creator. Once the rebellion happened, however, we humans created our own veil of sin separating us from our Heavenly Father. “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2, NKJV). Yet, in Exodus 25-31, with the introduction of the plans for the tabernacle, we begin to see the Father start to close that rift. The amazing reality is that God actually wants to dwell among us. He desires to “move in” with His people.

It is nearly impossible to overemphasize the importance of Exodus 25 verse 8 and how it fits into the comprehensive biblical story. From a literary perspective, this verse acts as a “hinge point” in the scriptural narrative. God will once again make His home among His children. What a mind-blowing prospect! And yet, as we continue to read through Exodus and Leviticus and so on, it doesn’t take us long to realize that there are still some serious limitations with this sanctuary business. God’s Presence among the people is limited to a single physical structure. Additionally, the people must rely on the mediatorial ministry of the priests on their behalf. They are still unable to access God directly. And from God’s perspective, this arrangement simply isn’t good enough.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, NKJV). And so, in a breathtaking move that would alter the course of history, God executed the next step in His plan: He sent Jesus Christ to BE the tabernacle among us – the living, breathing manifestation of God. “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (The Message). In three and a half years, Jesus with His little band of followers would change the world. Yet, God’s plan was still not complete. The Person of Jesus Christ, while on earth, was still limited to a single physical place at any given point in time. At the end of His ministry, Jesus must tell His tearful disciples why He would need to go away for a while: “Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7).

The next step, Jesus instructed His followers, would be for the Holy Spirit to come. A special outpouring of God’s Presence into our lives. And where does that leave us now?

So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. The whole building, being put together by Him, grows into a holy sanctuary in the Lord. You also are being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22, HCSB)

Unbelievable as it is, God is now able to become more Present in our lives than was ever imagined possible! You see, God’s Tabernacle among us is no longer limited by physical space. WE are His new tabernacle! “And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God.” (1 Peter 2:5, NLT). Through the Holy Spirit’s ministry, God dwells within our very hearts and minds. Our Heavenly Father is completely present, totally engaged in each one of our lives, every moment, every breath of every day. And, in turn, we as the church body are to serve as the vessels of God’s Presence–His Shekinah glory–to the perishing world around us.

And yet, we know this can’t be the end of the story. There’s something still desperately wrong with the reality in which we find ourselves: “And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering…” (Romans 8:23). There now remains just one final step in God’s plan of restoration for His people. It’s the event–the moment–we’re all holding out for with everything we’ve got:

And I heard a loud voice, which came from the throne, say, ‘God’s dwelling place is among men and He will dwell among them and they shall be His peoples. Yes, God Himself will be among them’…

I saw no sanctuary in the city, for the Lord God, the Ruler of all, is its Sanctuary, and so is the Lamb (Revelation 21:3, 22, Weymouth New Testament)

The Lord God Himself will be our sanctuary… No more need for a physical tabernacle structure in this coming City. Because our Heavenly Father is at last able to fully and completely dwell among His people. No more sin, no more suffering, no more separation.

“The LORD is my banner”

At the Lord’s command, the whole community of Israel left the wilderness of Sin and moved from place to place. Eventually they camped at Rephidim, but there was no water there for the people to drink. So once more the people complained against Moses. “Give us water to drink!” they demanded… “Why did you bring us out of Egypt? Are you trying to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:1-2, NLT)

Our chapter starts out with a somewhat sobering thought… It can be a bit of a scary thing to read “At the Lord’s command…” and “but there was no water” in the same verse. Perhaps our first lesson here is that sometimes God can lead us through difficult roads in life, but we must remember that hardships and trials do not mean that our Heavenly Father has ceased to guide us.

In their panic, the people cry out to Moses, wrongly channeling their desperation to human sources. Moses, however, cries out to God–the only true Source of help. Notice the LORD’s answer to Moses in Exodus 17:5. I think verse 5 can be broken down to three life-application points to aid us when we face life’s challenges, especially if we operate in a leadership role: 1.) “Walk out in front of the people.” Never forget that people are watching! In fact, it is often when challenges come our way that others will examine our lives most closely. Use these challenges as an opportunity to lead others! As we read in 1 Timothy 4:12, “be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” 2.) “Take your staff…” Utilize the resources that are available to you–even if it’s just a stick! Do what is in your realm of control, however limited, and trust that God will do what is in His realm of control. 3.) “Call some of the elders of Israel to join you.” Don’t try to do it all by yourself. Surround yourself with a team of fellow believers who share the vision and the mission!

The subsequent miracle of the water from the rock reflects Christ’s mission on this earth. We read in John 7:37-38, “On the last day, the climax of the festival, Jesus stood and shouted to the crowds, ‘Anyone who is thirsty may come to me! Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.'” 1 Corinthians 10:4 also tells us, “[All] of them drank the same spiritual water. For they drank from the spiritual rock that traveled with them, and that rock was Christ.” What a beautiful illustration of Christ’s sacrifice and provision for us.

In the next section of Exodus 17, we read of a cruel and dastardly attack by the Amalekites. Deuteronomy 25 informs us that they actually assaulted Israel at the rear of the camp, where the elderly and children lingered. As the Israelites begin their counterattack, Moses climbs a nearby hill and raises his hands over the fray. As long as Moses holds his hands up over the battle, the Israelites have the advantage. But as soon as he drops his hands, the Amalekites begin to dominate. So what’s the big deal about Moses holding his hands up? What Moses is actually doing is engaging in the Hebrew posture of prayer–he’s praying and interceding for his people. But this kind of life-or-death intercession prayer is emotionally, psychologically, and physically exhausting. Moses’ strength begins to fail. He realizes that this is a task–a mission–that he cannot accomplish alone. Moses must depend on two of his trusted friends to support him in this vital endeavor, upon which Israel’s victory depends. Sounds a lot like what we talked about above, right? This Christian walk is not something that you can do solo. Even our prayers are limited in effectiveness if we try to do it all on our own! It is essential to engage ourselves in the church community and to surround ourselves with other Christ followers.

“After the victory, the LORD instructed Moses, ‘Write this down on a scroll as a permanent reminder…’ Moses built an altar there and named it Yahweh-Nissi (which means “the LORD is my banner’)” (Exodus 17:14-15). Where are the altars in your life? What has been written on your scroll as a permanent reminder of what the LORD has done for you? As one of my favorite authors writes, “We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us…” This passage also introduces a new name for God, a new way of understanding His character and His relationship to us. “The LORD is my banner.” What is a banner? What functions does it serve? I can think of a few: 1.) Banners designate ownership. 2.) Banners act as a rallying point during battle. Prior to modern warfare, as long as you could still see your army’s flag in the fray, you knew you still stood a chance in the fight! 3.) Banners announce victory! A victorious army receives the right to take down an enemy’s flag and raise its own. Can you reflect on how God has been your banner in each of these aspects? The thing with a banner, though, is that it’s easy to wrap up and put away. Yet, a banner doesn’t do any good tucked away, does it? It ceases to perform any useful function. The only way a banner can serve its intended purpose is to unfurl it and fly it high. I want to close out my week by flying high God’s banner of ownership and victory in my life. What about you?