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Archive for the ‘The Gospel of Mark’ Category

This is part 5 of a 6-part series on the Gospel of Mark.

Today we come to what is probably the most difficult passage to interpret in the Gospel of Mark, if not one of the more difficult extended passages in the entire New Testament.  In Mark 13, we have Jesus’ longest continuous sermon recorded in the Gospel of Mark.  This sermon is often called “The Olivet Discourse” after the location where it was given.  Or sometimes it is called “The Little Apocalypse” because it deals with events which are to come in the future… events characterized by judgment and destruction.

Given the difficulty in interpreting this text, it is no wonder that there are a variety of interpretations regarding Jesus’ teaching on the future.  At the risk of being overly simplistic, most interpretations of this passage fall into one of three categories:

1)      Those who believe the things described here were fulfilled completely and finally in the events of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

2)      Those who believe these things are descriptive of events to come at the end of the age.

3)      Those who believe that these things describe some events which were fulfilled at the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 and some events which are yet to be fulfilled at the end of the age.  Those who hold to this interpretation often see the events of AD 70 as a type of the judgment to come at the end of the age.

I fall into the third camp described above.  Some of the events described here seem to have been literally fulfilled in the events of AD 70.  However, especially when we come to verses 19-27, it becomes quite clear (to me at least) that Jesus is speaking of events which are yet to come at the end of the age.

However, with this said, when we examine this text closely, we see that Jesus’ purpose is not to indulge in speculative theology. He is not speaking here to pique our interest in the future.  No!  He has a very practical purpose here in Mark 13.  His purpose is to impact the behavior of His followers in very practical ways in light of the events to come in the future.

With this said, our approach to this passage will be less speculative and more practical.  We will attempt to hold to this agenda by examining this passage in light of the commands of Jesus, which seem to fall into 5 basic groupings:

1)      Don’t be led astray (13:5.)

2)      Don’t be alarmed (13:7.)

3)      Be on guard (13:9, 23, 33.)

4)      Be a witness to the gospel in the face of persecution (13:11.)

5)      Stay awake (13:33, 35, 37.)

With this basic introduction, let’s begin by looking at the context of the passage here.

In the context of Mark 10-12, we see the intensification of opposition to Jesus.  He has become more and more prominent among the people.  He has traveled to Jerusalem… the center of Jewish political and religious life.  And there, the opposition has risen against Him to the point that the religious leaders of the day are seeking to put Him to death (Mark 11:18, 12:12.)  Mark 12 seems to describe the events of a single day in the ministry of Jesus, where He faced multiple efforts by the religious and political leaders to drum up a reason to arrest Him.  It seems to be at the end of this day, as He left the temple, that the events of Mark 13 took place.

Mark 13:1-4 (ESV) – 1 And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” 2 And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” 3 And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?”

As Jesus and His disciples were leaving the temple, one of His followers comments on the beauty of the temple.  This was no overstatement.  The Jerusalem temple was magnificent.  The foundation stones were massive, some of which are said to have been 37 feet long, 12 feet high and 18 feet wide.  And the beauty of this structure was unmatched in the Ancient Near East.  Josephus describes the temple in this way, ““The exterior of the building lacked nothing that could astonish either the soul or the eyes. For, being covered on every side with massive plates of gold, the sun had no sooner risen than it radiated so fiery a flash that those straining to look at it were forced to avert their eyes as from the solar rays. To approaching strangers it appeared from a distance like a snow-clad mountain, the reason being that whatever was not overlaid with gold was purest white” (Josephus, Jewish War V.222).

No wonder this disciple makes this comment!  Yet Jesus doesn’t seem to feel the same sense of awe.  “Do you see these great buildings?  There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (Mk 13:2.)

I think we have a hard time appreciating how radical this statement of Jesus would have seemed to His followers.  In Jewish thought, Jerusalem was the center of the universe, for this was the city in which God had chosen for His name to dwell.  And the temple was the absolute center of the universe, for this was considered to be the dwelling place of God among His people.  How could the dwelling place of God be destroyed?

This is the question on their minds as they travel from the temple to the Mount of Olives. Then, having arrived on the Mount of Olives, with a bird’s eye view of the temple, Jesus’ first four and closest disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John, approach Him privately with a question about His comments.  Specifically, they ask Him two questions:

1)      When will these things be?

2)      What will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?

Their questions are centered around the destruction of the temple (“these things.”)  However, we should also understand that, in the mind of any pious Jew in the 1st century, the destruction of the temple would have been considered so catastrophic that they would have equated it with the end of the age (cf. Matt 24:3.)

In the discourse that follows, Jesus proceeds to answer their questions, but He does so in a way that seems to vacillate back and forth between the destruction of the temple in AD 70 and the events preceding the end of the age.  And, as we have already stated, His focus is intensely practical…

Mark 13:5-8 (ESV) – 5 And Jesus began to say to them, “See that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.

Jesus’ opening command is, “See that no one leads you astray” (Mk 13:5.)  I find this fascinating given the identity of Jesus’ audience here.  He is speaking to Peter and Andrew and James and John.  They had been with Jesus since the beginning of His earthly ministry (Mk 1:16-20.)  They had seen Jesus perform many miraculous signs.  With the exception of Andrew, they had been witnesses of Jesus’ glory revealed on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mk 9:2-13.)  Yet despite their closeness to Jesus, they are at risk for being led astray from the truth as false teachers arise in their midst (Mk 13:6.)

If Peter and Andrew and James and John needed to be warned of the danger of being led astray… how much more do we need to be warned?

How can we see to it that no one leads us astray? First, we need to begin with knowing the truth and this means that we need to spend time reading and studying and meditating on the Word of God.  The best way to spot error is to know the truth.  And the only way we can know the truth is by prayerfully relying on the Spirit of God to reveal His truth through His Word.  Furthermore, we should humble ourselves to receive the Word from those whom God has called to shepherd us and serve one another in an attempt to keep our fellow Christians from being led astray (Eph 4:11-16.)

Jesus warns us that many teachers will come, seeking to lead people astray.  And He warns us that many will be led astray.  Are we ready for this challenge?

This leads us to the second command given by Jesus here… “Do not be alarmed” (Mk 13:7.)  Jesus specifically tells His disciples not to be alarmed in the face of “wars and rumors of wars” and natural disasters (Mk 13:7-8.)

His command here seems to be a warning against being overly worried about the coming of the end of the age in light of these political and natural upheavals in the world around us.  Jesus says that these things “must take place, but the end is not yet… These are the beginning of the birth pains” (Mk 13:7-8.)  These things are part of God’s plan… they must take place.  Yet they don’t necessarily tell us that the end is near. They are simply the “beginning” of “birth pains.”  The fact that Jesus calls these “birth pains” probably implies that they will grow progressively more and more intense as the end draws near.   As bad as these things are… the worst is yet to come.

It seems that many of us today have a hard time with this command.  Christians are constantly getting worried about current events, whether it is politics or the threat of wars in the Middle East.  Virtually every time there is a natural disaster of any significance, someone comes forward and announces that this is a sign of the coming of the end.

These things can cause us to feel fear and insecurity.  Yet the words of Jesus here can serve to comfort us.  The world is not out of control.  These things must take place.  This is all part of God’s plan.  This sin-filled world is moving towards a conclusion which has been determined beforehand by God… and the road will be hard.  Just like labor pains… these hardships will grow more and more intense… but the end is worth it!  There is a beautiful reward at the end of the labor!

Jesus warns us to be set against false teaching and prepared for large-scale hardships, but in the verses to follow, the warning and exhortation gets very personal…

Mark 13:9-13 (ESV) – 9 “But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. 10 And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11 And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12 And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. 13 And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

We have two more commands issued by Jesus here in this section of His teaching… “Be on your guard”… and “say what is given you in that hour.”

Jesus tells His disciples here in no uncertain terms that they will not only endure hardship which impacts the whole world.  They will be singled out specifically for persecution.  “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Mk 13:13.)  One needs only to casually read through the Book of Acts to see these things literally fulfilled in the lives of the apostles.  They were arrested constantly.  They were beaten and martyred.  Yet they endured to the end and were saved.  They did not renounce their faith.  They stood firm in their faith in Jesus Christ, even if the whole world raged against them, for they knew that their ultimate salvation lay in Him alone (cf. Mk 8:38.)

But Jesus tells them they are to do more than simply stand stubbornly against the opposition of the world.  They are to be His witnesses.  They are to speak forth the gospel.  They are to tell the world which hates them about the sinless Son of God who loved them and gave Himself for them.   And they would be successful in doing so before hostile religious councils and governors and kings… and the gospel would be preached to all the nations (see the Book of Acts.)  How is this possible?  Because they would not do so in their own strength.  The Holy Spirit would come upon them and embolden and empower them to speak forth the gospel in the face of this persecution.  Nothing would be able to stop the spread of the gospel, because it is God’s will for this good news to go to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:7-8.)

These events were fulfilled literally in the lifetimes of the apostles (with the possible exception of the gospel being preached to all the nations), but this struggle to stand firm and preach the gospel in the face of persecution did not stop there.  We see this same struggle today all over the world.  In our own cultural context, we see those around us growing more and more hostile to Christ and His gospel all the time.  And if Jesus is speaking of events to come in the future preceding the end of the age (and I think He is… cf. II Thess 2:1-10), then are we on our guard against the persecution to come? Do we expect, as Christians, to be accepted by the world?  Or do we anticipate opposition and persecution as a result of our faith in Jesus Christ?  Particularly as we serve Christ as His witnesses and announce the gospel to a hostile world, we will face opposition.  Will we endure to the end?  Will we continue to be faithful?

The promise held forth here of the empowering work of the Holy Spirit was not simply for the apostles, but it is true for us today as well.  The Holy Spirit continues to work in us and through us to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Do we rely on Him to give us the words to speak as we stand against the opposition of the world?

Beginning in verse 14, the interpretation of this text of Scripture begins to become more difficult…

Mark 13:14-18 (ESV) – 14 “But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 15 Let the one who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything out, 16 and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. 17 And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! 18 Pray that it may not happen in winter.

There is no shortage of opinions on the interpretation of “the abomination of desolation” and we are not going to exhaust all the possible meanings here.  We should note that this phrase is first found in the book of Daniel (Daniel 9:27, 11:31, 12:11) as a prediction of some terrible event to come.  Most scholars see this fulfilled, at least in part, by Antiochus IV Ephiphanes in 167 BC, when he erected a statue of Zeus in the temple and offered up sacrifices of swine on the altar in the Jerusalem temple.  This may also be fulfilled at a time in the future when the “man of lawlessness” described in II Thessalonians 2 declares himself to be “God” (II Thess 2:1-10.)  But in Luke’s parallel account of this discourse, he explains this phrase in a completely different way…

Luke 21:20-24 (ESV) – 20 “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, 22 for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. 23 Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. 24 They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

Notice that Luke seems to be recording the same teaching of Jesus.  He records Jesus’ instruction for His people to flee to the mountains when they see this even coming.  Yet Luke records Jesus stating that this should be the response “when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies” rather than “when you see the abomination of desolation.”  This leads me to the conclusion that Jesus is speaking specifically of the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.  And this is supported by the fact that the early church historian Eusebius tells us that Jewish Christians in Jerusalem around the time of AD 70 obeyed this command of Jesus, fleeing from the city when they saw the Romans begin to surround it, and they were saved.

This does not prohibit a future and further fulfillment of this warning by Jesus as well.  In fact this is likely the case, because notice how what immediately follows in verses 19-23 seems to project us forward into the future to the events preceding the end of the age…

Mark 13:19-23 (ESV) – 19 For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be. 20 And if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days. 21 And then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. 23 But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand.

Although the destruction of Jerusalem was a terrible event in which, reportedly 1 million Jews were killed, it is hard to see this as fulfilling what Jesus says here about this being the greatest tribulation ever experienced on earth (Mk 13:19.)  No.  Jesus seems to be looking forward to the time of tribulation which will precede His return to the earth.  It will be a time of great apostasy and false teaching (Mk 13:21-22), but the key point seems to be judgment and destruction which will be prevalent… so prevalent that, if God did not lift this judgment… all the people of the earth would be slain.

But notice the grace of God highlighted here.  “…for the sake of the elect, whom He chose, He shortened the days” (Mk 13:20.)  Though these events will be like nothing the world has ever seen, God will still remain gracious to His people.  He will preserve His people through even the most terrible of tribulations.  Though these days will be dark… Christians in this time of tribulation will be able to look forward to a brilliant light at the end of this tunnel…

Mark 13:24-27 (ESV) – 24 “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

Although some scholars try to explain this passage in light of the events of AD 70, I find it much more likely that this refers to the events surrounding the end of the age.  In fact, I think this is the very end of the age… when the Son of Man returns in glory and power at the Second Coming.

We saw a similar reference to the coming of the Son of Man in our study last week in Mark 8:38

Mark 8:38 (ESV) – 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

In Mark 8, Jesus is speaking of the judgment to fall upon those who are ashamed of Him.  But not so here in Mark 13:26-27.  Here Jesus describes the gathering of His people to Himself from all the ends of the earth.  Those who have endured the persecution and trials and temptations of this time of great tribulation will be gathered to their Savior and Lord and they will be with Him forever and ever.  This is the hope of Christians in the face of tribulation whether great or small.  This life is not all that there is.  Evil and death will not triumph in the end.  Jesus Christ is coming again… and when He does… His people will be with Him in glory forever.

This is the blessed hope of all Christians.  This is what we look forward to.  Yet we do not know when this will take place…

Mark 13:28-31 (ESV) – 28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

Jesus tells us that these signs will be discernable and when we see them coming about… then we know that His return is near.

Verse 30 has led many scholars to believe that Jesus is speaking solely of the events of AD 70, because, otherwise, how could Jesus say that “this generation will not pass away until these things take place.”  I think there is some validity to this.  Jesus’ predictions here regarding AD 70 would take place in the lifetime of this generation.  Yet, I think that Jesus is also saying that, when these signs of the end of the age become visible, that generation will not pass away before the events of the end take place.

Yet despite the fact that these signs will be clearly seen… we still cannot know exactly when these things will take place…

Mark 13:32-37 (ESV) – 32 “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. 35 Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— 36 lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”

Here we have Jesus’ final command… “Stay awake” (Mk 13:33, 35, 37.)  No one knows when these events will take place.  No one knows when Jesus will return.  Jesus Himself, during His earthly ministry, was unaware of when these events would take place (Mk 13:32.)  Therefore, we certainly can’t know when.   So we should always be ready.  We must strive to “stay awake” in light of Jesus’ impending return.

What does it mean to “stay awake”? I think it means to apply everything we have seen here in this passage.  It means that we must be aware of the fact that things will get worse and worse in this world.  False teachers will come and go and many will be led astray.  But we are to strive to know the truth and hold fast to the truth.  We must know that persecution will rise against the gospel and those who proclaim it.  Yet we are to proclaim the good news of Jesus anyway… not in our own strength… but in the strength which the Holy Spirit provides. And we are to continue in this endeavor to preach the gospel until it has been proclaimed to all the nations of the earth.  We must be prepared to endure tribulation… terrible tribulation.  And in light of that tribulation… we are to look forward expectantly to the return of Jesus… knowing that one day, He will return and we will be gathered to Him forever and ever.  Staying awake means understanding God’s plan for the ages and living lives which reflect trust in His promises.  After all, Jesus has told us, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mk 13:31.)

These things will come to pass, just as Jesus has promised.  Are you staying awake? Are you ready for His return?  Listen to the closing words of Jesus here in this passage and I pray that we all take them to heart…

And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.” (Mk 13:37.)

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The following is a sermon preached at First Baptist Church of Pine on May 31, 2009.

 

There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.
Lose all their guilty stains, lose all their guilty stains;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.

(“There is a Fountain” – William Cowper)

 

                Those are precious words, penned by the great hymn writer William Cowper back in the 18th century… a man who understood something that many people don’t understand today.  We are guilty sinners.  We are stained by the uncleanness of our sin.  There is a spot upon each and every one of us which… no matter how hard we scrub… we can’t make it go away.

                William Cowper wrestled with this.  If you have read anything about him, then you know that he struggled with reality of his own sinfulness.  He was acutely aware of his own uncleanness.   He knew that there was nothing he could do to make himself clean in the sight of a holy God.

                I find very few people who wrestle with this like Cowper did.  Most people I encounter today want God to fix the circumstances of their life. They want health and wealth and prosperity… but cleansing, on the other hand, is rarely on their most wanted list.

                Yet cleansing from sin and its uncleanness is what we all need more than anything else if we are to have a relationship with God.  And Cowper was right.  There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel’s veins.  And sinners plunged beneath that flood, lose all their guilty stains.

                Only Immanuel… Jesus Christ… God with us… can cleanse us from our uncleanness… no matter how great it might be.

                Open your Bibles with me if you will to Mark chapter 1, beginning in verse 40, and let’s learn more about the means by which Jesus cleanses us from the uncleanness of our sin.

Mark 1:40-45 (ESV) – 40 And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” 42 And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43 And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, 44 and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” 45 But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.

This passage takes place early in the Galilean ministry of Jesus.  He was fairly new on the scene, following the imprisonment of John the Baptist.  He had begun traveling around throughout Galilee, preaching and healing and casting out demons (Mk 1:39.)  Opposition had not yet arisen against Jesus in earnest… and most people didn’t quite know what to make of Him.  At some point during this time… Jesus is approached by this leper.

To really understand what is going on here, we need to think a little bit about the significance of leprosy among the Jews.  This was probably one of the most dreaded diseases among the Jews in the ancient world, for multiple reasons.

For one thing… the leper suffered physically to a great degree.  Leprosy (צָרַעַת) is kind of a catch-all category for various skin diseases in the Old Testament for which there was no treatment.  There were prescribed ways in which to diagnose the problem… but no known treatments (see Lev 13-14.)  The afflicted person would begin by breaking out in sores, which would spread and grow deeper.  And as the infection intensified, the person’s flesh would literally begin to rot away.  The person would begin to become more and more scarred and disfigured.  Think about this.  Imagine it for a moment.  What would it be like to literally have your flesh rot off your body?  How painful would this be? 

But this was just the beginning of the leper’s suffering.  You see, this disease was particularly unique in that it rendered the person ceremonially “unclean” under the Old Testament Law.  And this caused all manner of additional suffering.  Listen to the consequences of being diagnosed as a leper…

Leviticus 13:45-46 (ESV) – 45 “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ 46 He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.

The leper was “unclean” and, as a result, he was required to live alone outside the camp.   He dressed in rags… he covered his face… and everywhere he went he was required to cry out loudly, “Unclean!  Unclean!” lest anyone might get close enough to be infected by him.  Because, to have contact with an unclean leper, was to become unclean yourself (Num 5:2-3.)

This meant that the leper not only suffered physically… but he also suffered emotionally and socially as well.  He was cut off from all other people.  He could not have any contact with his family or friends.  He couldn’t have contact with anyone, unless he could find other lepers to live with (for example, II Kg 7:3-10 and Lk 17:11-14.)  For the most part, he was deprived of all social interaction and physical affection.  There were no handshakes for him… no hugs… no kisses.  There were no casual conversations around the dinner table.  He was separated from all others because of his disease.

But more importantly, he also suffered spiritually, for he was separated from fellowship with God.  He could not enter into the temple to worship God.  He couldn’t come before God to offer sacrifices as an atonement for his sin.  He was cut off from God and His people… completely… because he was unclean.

Why would God subject the leper to this suffering?  Why would the unclean man be cut off from God and His people?

For one thing, this illness is associated with the judgment of God.  We have four specific people described as being afflicted by leprosy in the Old Testament.  They are…

1)      Miriam, the sister of Moses (as punishment from God for jealousy – Num 12:10). 

2)      King Uzziah (for usurping the role of the priest – II Kg 15:5).

3)      Gehazi, Elisha’s servant (for covetousness and theft – II Kg 5:27).

4)      Naaman (no reason – II Kg 5:1.)

In three out of these four cases, leprosy is explicitly described as the judgment of God for sin.

That doesn’t mean that every case of leprosy in the Old Testament was a direct result of sin, but it does tell us that this disease was particularly associated with sin and judgment (Christopher J. H. Wright, New Bible Commentary, Leviticus 13.)  Therefore, it seems reasonable that those afflicted would be cut off from the God and His people.

But even more so… think about the nature of this illness.  As I already said, it was a disease where the flesh literally rotted off of the body.  Therefore, in many ways, this disease was a picture of death (Albert Barnes, Notes on the Old Testament, Lev 13:45.)  A leper was the walking dead.  Even the way they dressed… with torn clothes and hair hanging loose… was a symbol of mourning common when someone died (Lev 10:6.)

Leprosy was a powerful, visual representation of death.  One could see the effects of death clearly in the infected person.  And death is the consequence of sin.  God’s people are to be holy as He is holy.  God’s people are to be set apart to Him.  And God has no part in sin.  Those who were the walking representation of the consequences of sin were, therefore, excluded from fellowship with the people of God and alienated from the presence of God Himself

Here in this text in Mark 1… we encounter one of these people.  A leper.  One who is unclean.  There is no way of knowing how long he had suffered from this disease, but, apparently, he had a pretty severe case of leprosy.  In Luke 5:12, this man is described as being “full of leprosy”, implying that he was in a pretty advanced stage of the disease.

Can you picture this man’s plight?  Can you get a sense of suffering?

Until we see how dire his situation is… we can’t really appreciate this text of Scripture.  He is suffering physically and emotionally and socially and spiritually.  He is a leper… an outcast… one of the untouchables… cut off from God and His people.

Now that we have set the stage, notice the response of this leper to Jesus…

We are told here that he “came” to Jesus.  This is emphatic in the original Greek.  That’s like saying it is bold-faced, italicized and in double-sized font.  This tells us that Jesus didn’t stumble on to this guy.  No… this man came looking for Jesus.  He is a legitimate seeker.  He sought out Jesus and drew near to Him.  In fact, he came awfully close to him… close enough that Jesus could touch him, as we will see in a moment.  And that was a no-no.  The leper was supposed to avoid people.  He was to live alone outside the camp.  He was to cry out “Unclean!  Unclean!” everywhere he went so that people could avoid him.  But instead, he seeks out and draws near to Jesus.

Why Jesus?  No doubt he had heard something of the miracles which Jesus had performed throughout Galilee.  How much he knew about Jesus we can’t say for sure, but he knew enough.  And he came looking specifically for Jesus… and when he found Him, he drew near to Him.

Secondly, we are told that he came to Jesus desperately.  He was “imploring” (παρακαλέω) Jesus.  Some translations render this “beseeching” (NASB) or “begging” (NIV/NLT) Him.  This is a strong word in the original Greek (παρακαλέω).  It is used of the demons pleading with Jesus not to destroy them (Mk 5:10, 12.)  It is used of Jairus when he come to Jesus and begs that He will come and heal his little daughter (Mk 5:23.)  It expresses a sense of urgency and desperation.

This man was desperate.  He knew there was nothing he could do to cleanse himself.   But Jesus could.  He comes to Jesus and begs Him… pleads with Him… to make him clean.

 Third, we see that he came to Jesus humbly.  He knelt before Jesus.  This does not necessarily imply worship, but he recognizes that Jesus is worthy of honor and respect.  He falls down before Him and honors him.  He doesn’t come pompously or presumptuously.  He doesn’t think that Jesus owes him anything.  He humbles himself before Jesus.

Finally, we see that he came to Jesus in faith.  “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”

There are a couple of things we should notice here…

First of all, notice what he is asking for.  He is asking for Jesus to make him “clean.”  This is important, because the word “clean” is probably most significant word in this passage.  It occurs 3x in verb form in verses 40-42 and 1x in the noun form in verse 44.  At the heart of this man’s desperate petition is not simply that Jesus would heal him… but that Jesus would make him “clean.”  He is crying out for the uncleanness to be taken away.  I think this implies that, even more than simply being well again, he longs to be returned to fellowship with God and His people.  He wants to be clean.

And secondly, we should note that he has no doubt that Jesus can do it.  He has absolute faith in Him.  He doesn’t question Jesus power at all.

What he questions is Jesus’ willingness to cleanse him.  It is as if he is saying, “I know you can cleanse me, Jesus… but will you.  Will you take away my shame?  I am an unclean leper… will you cleanse me?

This is a powerful picture of where we all are naturally apart from Jesus.  We are all born infected with what the Old Puritan Ralph Venning called “the Plague of Plagues”… sin.  Like the leper… naturally… we are the walking dead.   Little by little, the disease in us is rotting away at our soul and flesh.

Consider the words of Jesus in Mark 7:21-23

Mark 7:21-23 (ESV) – 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Evil thoughts… immorality… stealing… anger and malice and murder… covetousness and lying and jealousy and pride.  Let’s be honest… we are all guilty of at least some of these forms of sin.  And where do they come from?  Not from outside of us… but from inside of us.  We are born with a disease which is uglier and more damaging than even leprosy… and it is called sin… and it results in us being defiled.

We are unclean. That is true of me.  That is true of you.  That is true of every one of us.  And the result is physical suffering… emotional suffering… social suffering and spiritual suffering.  We all die, because we all sin.  We all face physical hardship and suffering because we live in a sin-cursed world.  We all suffer from broken relationships with other human beings around us because of sin.  Naturally, we are all alienated from God and separated from the fellowship of His redeemed people… because, like this leper, we are unclean.

And there is nothing we can do about it.  We can’t cleanse ourselves.  We can’t take our uncleanness away. 

Do you see this in yourself?

I’ve known many people in my years of ministry who are able to see this in themselves… and they come to realize that they need to be cleansed.  They see their sin.  They see the defilement that rises up within them… and it repulses them.  But they aren’t convinced that Jesus will cleanse them.

That was William Cowper’s struggle.  He was acutely aware of his own uncleanness.  That is why it was so astounding to him that there is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins which could cleanse all his guilty stains.

This was somewhat of a struggle for John Newton, as well.  He had been a hard-living, blasphemous, slave trader.  And he wrestled with the reality of his own uncleanness.  How could he be cleansed?  When he realized that there was cleansing for him… how could he not but write… “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!”

But those people are far off.  Let me tell you about a good friend of mine.  I have known him for a long time and, suffice it to say, he had gotten around a little bit.  His sin had finally caught up with him and he was forced to reap the harvest of what he had sown.  And for the first time since I had known him, he saw his own sin.  He knew that he needed to be cleansed.  I remember sitting with him in my van and sharing the gospel with him.  And his response was so sad.  He didn’t think Christ would cleanse him.  He left that day… not singing the praises of a God who saves unclean sinners… but weighed down by a sense of his own uncleanness.

Is Jesus willing to cleanse those who are unclean?

This passage answers that question quite clearly.  Notice how Jesus responds to this unclean man…

He was “moved with compassion” (Mk 1:41).  The Greek term here is σπλαγχνίζομαι and it literally means “to be moved to the bowels.”    In Jewish thought, the deepest seat of emotions was not the heart, but the abdomen.  That makes sense, if you think about it.  When we get truly excited or nervous… we tend to feel it deep in our gut. 

Jesus was moved to the very depths of His being when he saw this man… this unclean leper… desperately come to Him in faith and humble himself before Him.

And responding to this compassion, He reached out his hand and touched him.  Remember… this man was unclean.  He was socially isolated because of his illness and presumably he had been so for quite some time.  It is safe to assume that no one had touched him in a long time.  This is an incredible act of compassion.

But there is more.  Remember this man is unclean.  He is untouchable.  Those who touch him will share in his uncleanness.

Do you see what Jesus is doing here?  He is identifying with this man in his uncleanness.  He is taking this man’s uncleanness upon Himself.

Let me see if I can help illustrate this.  In the Old Testament, when a man was seeking atonement for his sin, he had to bring a sacrifice, like a lamb or a bull or a goat.  And this animal had to be spotless… without any blemish.  This animal had to be ritually clean.  The man would bring the sacrifice to the temple, then he would lay his hands upon the head of the animal. This was a way of identifying with the sacrifice.  This animal would stand in his place.  This animal would bear his sin and suffer and die on his behalf.  Then the animal would be slain and offered on the altar as a sacrifice for sin.

We see the same principle operating here… only in reverse.  The spotless sacrifice reaches out and lays His hands upon the unclean sinner… identifying with him… taking his uncleanness upon Himself.

Then we see Jesus utter those beautiful words… “I am willing.  Be cleansed.”

This is a powerful picture of Jesus identifying with us in our sinful uncleanness.  The Son of God entered into our existence… taking on humanity… identifying with us in our creatureliness.  But His identification with us did not stop there.  He touched us in our sinfulness.  He took upon Himself our uncleanness when He suffered and died upon the cross.

The Apostle Paul describes this beautifully in II Corinthians 5:21

2 Corinthians 5:21 (ESV) – 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Paul describes a great exchange taking place.  Jesus took our uncleanness and gave us His righteousness so that we can be reconciled to God.

Why would Jesus do this?  Because He is moved with compassion over the suffering of His people in their sin…

Romans 5:6-8 (ESV) – 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for (ὑπέρ – “on behalf of”) the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for (ὑπέρ – “on behalf of”) us.

God loves us in Christ Jesus… even when we are still ravaged by the uncleanness of our sin.  We don’t need to clean ourselves up.  We can’t clean ourselves up.  But Christ reached out and touched us in our spiritual leprosy so that we might be clean… because He loves us.

That is what we see here in Mark 1

Jesus touches this man and pronounces him clean… and immediately the leprosy left him and he was made clean.

Picture what Mark just told us.  This man was “full of leprosy” (Lk 5:12)… but immediately, it went away.  There was no slow and steady recuperation.  It was there… and then it was gone.  He was unclean one moment… and then he was clean.

The Greek here in both verses 41 and 42 implies that this was a once-for-all, decisive cleansing (i.e aorist tense verbs.)  Immediately… at the touch and word of Jesus, this man’s uncleanness was gone.  The man’s suffering under the oppression of leprosy was gone.  He is cleansed for good at the hands of Jesus.

Then Jesus does an unusual thing.  He commands this man… rather strongly, mind you… not to tell anyone what has taken place, but to go to the priest and follow the procedures set forth in Leviticus 14 for being recognized as a cleansed leper.

Sadly, we see that this man… who received this incredible blessing… despite being cleansed by Jesus… disobeyed Him and spread the news everywhere… actually hindering the ministry of Jesus on a human plane.

But more importantly… why would Jesus forbid him to speak about this miracle?  Probably to prevent people from misunderstanding His ministry and thinking that He was nothing more than simply a miracle-worker (Alan Cole, Tyndale, 64, and Sinclair Ferguson, Let’s Study Mark, 22.)

And yet we should understand that this was a specific command given to a specific person at a very specific time in the ministry of Jesus.  The same command does not apply to us today.  We are not commanded to be silent.  In fact… we are commanded to do the opposite.  We are commanded to be ambassadors for Christ.  We are called to tell others what Jesus has done for us and appeal to those in the world around us to come to Jesus in humility and faith and be cleansed from their uncleanness.

What can we learn from this passage of Scripture?

Maybe you are here today and you have never trusted in Jesus. Maybe you know you that you need to be cleansed from sin, but you just aren’t sure how to be made clean.  None of us can cleanse ourselves from our sinful uncleanness.  We may be able to clean up the outsides of our lives for a time… but we can’t clean up what is inside.  Sin is a sickness which infects us all.  It infects me.  It infects you.  The only One who can cleanse you from sin is Jesus.  He bore our sin in His body on the tree so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness (I Pet 2:24.)  He became cursed for us so that we might be set free from sin’s curse (Gal 3:13.)  He alone can cleanse you from your sin.

I urge you to be like this leper.  Come to Jesus in desperate need of salvation and humble yourself before Him in faith… and He will cleanse you from your sin.

Maybe you are a Christian here today.  Maybe you have already been cleansed from your sin.  Then I would urge you to go forth as one of His ambassadors and tell the world what He has done for you.  That means speaking of sin and the way it defiles all of us… bringing with it physical and emotional and social and spiritual suffering.  That means speaking of Jesus… the sinless Son of God… who identified with us in our sin when He died upon the cross and who freely gives us His righteousness so that we can be clean in the sight of God.  It means calling, men and women, boys and girls to repent of their sin and humbly come to Jesus in faith.

I would urge you to tell all those around you that God made Jesus… who knew no sin… to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (II Cor 5:21.)

And finally… I would urge all of us who are Christians to remember the greatness of Jesus’ compassion for us.

Never forget that… once upon a time… you were that leper… separated from God and His people… ravaged by sin.  You were once the walking dead.  And then Jesus touched you… and you were made clean and granted new life in Him.

Never forget this…

Never forget His compassion for you.  While you were yet a sinner… Christ died for you.

And never cease to praise Him.

There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.
Lose all their guilty stains, lose all their guilty stains;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.

(“There is a Fountain” – William Cowper)

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The following is part 4 of a 6 part survey series in the Gospel of Mark.

Let me tell you a little story.  It is a true story about a man who seemed to have it all.  This man’s name was Ernest Hemingway.  You have no doubt heard of him.  He is pretty well known.  He was the author of such highly acclaimed works of fiction as “The Sun Also Rises”, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, and “The Old Man and the Sea.”

Mr. Hemingway was born July 21, 1889, and he worked his entire adult life as a writer.  In 1918, he went to WWI as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross and was wounded in battle and awarded a medal for valor.  After this, he married wealthy heiress Hadley Richardson in 1921.  This allowed him a little more luxury to pursue his writing.  He lived in Paris after WWI and spent time with the literary and entertainment elite… people like Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce.  In 1926, he published “The Sun Also Rises” and this led to international success and acknowledgment.

Soon after this, he married second wife and moved to Key West.  This began a life of adventures for Mr. Hemingway.  He loved bullfights and safaris and deep sea fishing.  In 1937, he was a war correspondent for Spanish Civil War.  Around this time, he met his third wife and divorced his second wife.  He went on to be a war correspondent for WWII

It is said that he could be very arrogant.  He particularly loved to show off the trappings of his adventurous lifestyle.  Pictures of this man abound in the most exciting and extravagant poses.  He is seen standing over a dead lion  or with his foot on the head of rhino or standing beside a large marlin which he had caught.

He would marry again after this and he continued to live a life of great excess.  He was well-known to have a drinking problem.  He traveled frequently to Europe.  He enjoyed continuous adventures. 

He was a literary success.  He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1952 for “The Old Man and the Sea.”  In 1954, he won the Nobel Prize for literature.  However, things began to turn sour for him around this time.  He was unable to personally accept his Nobel Prize because of a plane crash while on safari in Africa.  He survived but never quite the same.  His health deteriorated after this.  He suffered from kidney problems, high blood pressure and, later, depression.  He attempted to commit suicide early in 1961, but failed.  He underwent treatment for depression, but apparently with little or no success, because on July 2, 1961, Ernest Hemingway committed suicide with a shotgun blast to his face.

Here is a man who had everything the world could offer.  Wealth.  Women.  Fame.  Power.  Adventure.  Success.  But in the end… He lost very own soul.

The world would have us strive to be like Ernest Hemingway.  Go for the gusto!  Take all you can!  Give nothing back!  Look out for # 1!  He who dies with the most toys wins!

But God’s Word holds forth an entirely different paradigm for success.  Consider the example of Jesus…

Philippians 2:5-11 (ESV) – 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

God the Father has “highly exalted” Jesus.  He has given Him “the name that is above every name.”  He is the greatest example of “success” in God’s economy.

But what made Him successful?  The fact that, though He is very God of very God, He chose to take upon Himself the form of a servant and humbled Himself to the point of death… even death on a cross.  “Therefore” God exalted Him and gave Him the name above all names.

Self-denial and sacrifice lead to true success… and we see that most clearly in Jesus.

Keep this in mind as we turn to our text for this week’s study… Mark chapter 8, verses 27-38

 

Mark 8:27-38 (ESV) – 27 And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” 29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” 30 And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. 31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” 34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Here we see Jesus is with His disciples in the region of Caesarea Philippi, which is the farthest north Jesus ever traveled.  At this moment, He was the farthest He would ever be from Jerusalem during His earthly ministry.  He is far away from the political tension in Jerusalem which seemed to haunt Him.  It is here, that Jesus asks His disciples two very important questions.

Who do people say that I am?” (Mk 8:27.)

People flocked around Jesus constantly.  They came seeking miracles.  They listened to His teaching.  But who did they really think He was?  Some thought He was John the Baptist… or Elijah… or one of the prophets. 

Think about this for a moment.  What are they saying about Jesus when they identify Him as John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets?  They are saying that He is of God.  They are saying that He is a prophet of God… one who speaks on behalf of God to His people.  This would be a tremendous compliment if it was said about most people.  But it grossly understating the identity of Jesus.

This is what much of the world even today thinks about Jesus.  What does Islam teach about Jesus?  It teaches that Jesus is a prophet of God.  The same is true of the Bahai faith.  Mahatma Gandhi believed that Jesus was a righteous man and great teacher.   That seems to be the opinion of Dan Brown, the author of the vastly popular book, “The Da Vinci Code.”  The same is true of most liberal Christian theologians today as well.  He was a messenger from God… a good teacher… but nothing more.

This may be what most people think about Jesus… but His follower know Him to be something more.  Jesus asks His disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” (Mk 8:29.)  The word “you” is emphatic in the original Greek.  Jesus anticipates that they will have a different opinion of Jesus.  Why would they have a different answer to this question?  Because they knew Jesus in a way that other people didn’t.

Think about all they had seen.  They had seen Jesus cast out demons (Mk 1:23-27, 1:32-34, 3:11-12, 5:1-20, 7:24-30) and heal the sick (Mk 1:30-34, 1:40-42, 2:1-12, 3:1-5, 5:25-34, 7:31-37, 8:22-26).  They had seen Him calm the storm with a word (Mk 4:35-41) and walk upon the water (Mk 6:45-51.) They had seen Him feed multitudes of people in the wilderness with only a few loaves of bread and fish (Mk 6:30-44, 8:1-10.)  They had seen Him raise the dead (Mk 5:21-43.)  And they knew that His power was no sleight-of-hand trick… because Jesus had delegated this same power to them… and they had gone out on His behalf, healing the sick and casting out demons (Mk 6:7-13.)

They knew Jesus as other people didn’t… therefore Jesus could expect a different answer from them.  And Peter… acting as the spokesman for the group… tells Jesus who they think He is.  “You are the Christ” (Mk 8:29.)

What does Peter mean when he identifies Jesus as “the Christ?”  It means that Peter recognizes Him as the Messiah… the Anointed One of God… God’s promised Savior and King.

Peter has the right answer… but notice, in verse 30, Jesus commands them not to tell anyone else who He is.  Why?  Because people would fail to understand what it meant for Jesus to be the Christ.

What did the Jewish people in the 1st century believe about the Messiah?  They were expecting a powerful warrior king… who would cast off the Roman yoke and elevate Israel to a place of political prominence among the nations of the world.  They were expecting Him to bring justice upon the wicked… meaning those outside Israel… and usher in a period of peace on the earth.  They saw these promises clearly in passages like Psalm 2 and Isaiah 9:6-7, Isaiah 11:1-9, Jeremiah 23:5-6, and many others to numerous to count.

In the pseudopigraphal (i.e. non-canonical) work entitled “The Psalms of Solomon”, we get a picture of what a 1st century Pharisee thought it would be like when the Messiah… the Christ… came on the scene…

Psalms of Solomon 17:23-5123 (21) Behold, O Lord, and raise up unto them their king, the son of David, At the time in the which Thou seest, O God, that he may reign over Israel Thy servant 24 (22) And gird him with strength, that he may shatter unrighteous rulers, 25 And that he may purge Jerusalem from nations that trample (her) down to destruction. (23) Wisely, righteously 26 he shall thrust out sinners from (the) inheritance, He shall destroy the pride of the sinner as a potter’s vessel. (24) With a rod of iron he shall break in pieces all their substance, 21 He shall destroy the godless nations with the word of his mouth; (25) At his rebuke nations shall flee before him, And he shall reprove sinners for the thoughts of their heart. 28 (26) And he shall gather together a holy people, whom he shall lead in righteousness, And he shall judge the tribes of the people that has been sanctified by the Lord his God. 29 (21) And he shall not suffer unrighteousness to lodge any more in their midst, Nor shall there dwell with them any man that knoweth wickedness, 30 For he shall know them, that they are all sons of their God. (28) And he shaIl divide them according to their tribes upon the land, 31 And neither sojourner nor alien shall sojourn with them any more. (29) He shall judge peoples and nations in the wisdom of his righteousness. Selah. 32 (30) And he shall have the heathen nations to serve him under his yoke; And he shall glorify the Lord in a place to be seen of (?) all the earth; 33 And he shall purge Jerusalem, making it holy as of old: 34 (31) So that nations shall come from the ends of the earth to see his glory, Bringing as gifts her sons who had fainted, 35 And to see the glory of the Lord, wherewith God hath glorified her. (32) And he (shall be) a righteous king, taught of God, over them, 36 And there shall be no unrighteousness in his days in their midst, For all shall be holy and their king the anointed of the Lord. 37 (33) For he shall not put his trust in horse and rider and bow, Nor shall he multiply for himself gold and silver for war, Nor shall he gather confidence from (?) a multitude (?) for the day of battle. 38 (34) The Lord Himself is his king, the hope of him that is mighty through (his) hope in God. All nations (shall be) in fear before him, 39 (35) For he will smite the earth with the word of his mouth for ever. 40 He will bless the people of the Lord with wisdom and gladness, 41 (36) And he himself (will be) pure from sin, so that he may rule a great people. He will rebuke rulers, and remove sinners by the might of his word; 42 (37) And (relying) upon his God, throughout his days he will not stumble; For God will make him mighty by means of (His) holy spirit, And wise by means of the spirit of understanding, with strength and righteousness. 43 (38) And the blessing of the Lord (will be) with him: he will be strong and stumble not; 44 (39) His hope (will be) in the Lord: who then can prevail against him? (40) (He will be) mighty in his works, and strong in the fear of God, 45 (He will be) shepherding the flock of the Lord faithfully and righteously, And will suffer none among them to stumble in their pasture. 46 (41) He will lead them all aright, And there will be no pride among them that any among them should be oppressed. 47 (42) This (will be) the majesty of the king of Israel whom God knoweth; He will raise him up over the house of Israel to correct him. 48 (43) His words (shall be) more refined than costly gold, the choicest; In the assemblies he will judge the peoples, the tribes of the sanctified. 49 His words (shall be) like the words of the holy ones in the midst of sanctified peoples. 50 Blessed be they that shall be in those days, In that they shall see the good fortune of Israel which God shall bring to pass in the gathering together of the tribes. 51 May the Lord hasten His mercy upon Israel! May He deliver us from the uncleanness of unholy enemies! The Lord Himself is our king for ever and ever.

If Jesus’ disciples went around telling everyone that He is the Christ… the Messiah… then this is what they would have expected of Him.

But this wasn’t Jesus’ purpose at all in His first coming.   He didn’t come in glory and power… instead He came in humility and self-sacrifice.  He came to deny Himself and suffer loss according to God’s will…

Notice that immediately following Peter’s announcement that Jesus is the Christ… Jesus begins explaining to them what this means.

Mark 8:31 (ESV) – 31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.

This is the first time that Jesus has come right out and explained His purpose to His disciples.  And we simply don’t get the impact this would have made on them.  We know the story too well.  We cannot appreciate how counter intuitive this would seem.  How could Jesus… this One who can calm the storm and walk on water and heal the sick and cast out demons and raise the dead and produce food aplenty out of virtually nothing… how could this Jesus possibly suffer and die?

Jesus probably added to their confusion by referring to Himself as “the Son of Man” as well.  There is no question that this was Jesus’ favorite self designation during His earthly ministry.  Now there is no lack of ink spilled over what Jesus was trying to get at by using this identifier to describe Himself, but basically, most explanations fall into two camps:

Following Old Testament usage, Jesus is simply affirming Himself as a representative of humanity.  For example, God refers to Ezekiel over and over again as “son of man”… simply meaning he is human.  A better example might be the usage of the phrase in Psalm 8:4

Psalm 8:4 (ESV) – 4 what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?

Given the parallelism in this verse, it is clear that “son of man” is simply another way of speaking about people.

But there is another possibility.  In Daniel 7:13-14, we see an entirely different usage of this phrase…

Daniel 7:13-14 (ESV) – 13 “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. 14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

Here, “the Son of Man” is a divine figure.  He is riding on the clouds and sharing in the glory of God and receiving an infinite, eternal kingdom from God.

So which is it?  I think it is both.  Jesus is both the representative of humanity, who… taking on the form of a servant, would suffer and die in our place to bear the punishment for our sin, so that we could be forgiven and enter into the kingdom of God.  But at the same time, He is very God of very God… who will receive the eternal kingdom from God the Father because of His obedience to the will of His Father and His selfless sacrifice on behalf of His people.   We can see this now in retrospect, but we shouldn’t be too hard on the disciples for not understanding this at the time.

Peter is so shocked by this statement that he does something which is absolutely ridiculous here.  He takes aside this One who he has just proclaimed to be God’s Messiah… the Christ… and rebukes Him.  Which prompts Jesus to utter a frightening rebuke of His own, “Get behind Me, Satan!  For you are no setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Mk 8:33.)  Jesus says that Satan is behind this statement of Peter.

Think about that.  What is Peter saying?  Peter is saying, “Avoid the cross, Jesus.  You don’t need to die to receive the kingdom.”  Isn’t that the same temptation which the devil threw at Jesus in the wilderness?

Matthew 4:8-10 (ESV) – 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “ ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’ ”

Satan offered Jesus the kingdoms of this world without going to the cross, if He would only bow down and worship Him.  And Jesus responded with the same type of rebuke… “Be gone, Satan!”

What does this tell us?  Something very important.  It tells us that avoiding self-denial and sacrifice are Satanic.  At least… it was in the life and ministry of Jesus.  Why?  Because this was God’s will.

We tend to be much more like Peter, don’t we?  We think in human terms.  We think about getting all we can.  We tend to think about taking the path of least resistance in gaining success.  If we are honest… it isn’t natural for us to think of the way of success coming through self-denial and self-sacrifice.  Yet that is exactly what Jesus is saying was true in His own life.  And that is what Jesus demands of all those who would follow Him.

Everything we have looked at so far is of the utmost importance, because it identifies for us who Jesus is.  It helps us to understand the character of Jesus and the purpose of Jesus.

But now things get very personal, because in verses 34-38, Jesus states that what is good for the goose is good for the gander.  In other words, those who are followers of Jesus are to be like Him in self-denial and sacrifice…

 “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Mk 8:34.)  Notice that these words were spoken… not just to Jesus’ closest followers… but to the crowds.  That is fascinating, because this statement would have been much harder… if not impossible… for them to understand apart from the explanation which Jesus had just given of Himself.  You see… Jesus is calling people to “follow Him.”  This means we must first understand Him and His work… so that we can begin to understand how to follow Him.

Here we see Jesus call people to follow Him in two interconnected ways:

We are to “deny ourselves.”  This is a very strong verb in Greek (παρνέομαι) which means “to repudiate” or “to reject.”  It means to completely deny any association with something (Louw-Nida, παρνέομαι.)

And what is it that we are to deny?  Ourselves.  Jesus calls us to repudiate ourselves.  He expects us to make a break from the person we once were.

Secondly, Jesus expects us to “take up our cross.”  The imagery of this statement is mostly lost on us today.  But Jesus’ hearers would have certainly understood the imagery, because, for them, it was not uncommon to see men carrying crosses in those days.  When we talk about carrying a cross, we often talk about enduring some hardship in life.  We speak of everything from the minor health problems to financial crises as “your cross to bear.”  But a 1st century Jew knew what it meant when someone was carrying a cross.  It meant that they were on their way to die.  They were carrying the instrument of their own torture and execution.  They were the walking dead.

Jesus says that if we are to be His followers, then we must willingly take up our own cross.  We must willingly begin walking a path which is death to the person we once were… a path which will often be full of hardship and suffering.

These two commands, taken together, are the essence of repentance.    This is the result of having a change of mind about who Jesus is… coming to know and believe that He is the Christ.  This is the result of having a change of mind about who we are… sinful men and women who are now saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus… and therefore we are now following His example.

Both of these verbs (“deny yourself” and “take up”) are aorist imperatives in the Greek.  This implies that they are once-for-all, decisive events in our lives.  It doesn’t imply that we will always deny ourselves and take up our cross perfectly… but there is a point in time when every Christian comes to an understanding of who Jesus is and they decisively turn from sin and begin to trust in Jesus.  This begins our new life with Jesus… but we should recognize that it is only the beginning.

The third command here in verse 34 is to “follow Me.”  This is what is called a present tense verb in the Greek and it implies an ongoing, continual action.  In other words… Jesus calls us to make a break with the people we once were… then we are called to strive to follow His example from then on as we live the Christian life.

We should be clear about something.  We are not saved by following Him… but following Him is the result of our being saved.

Jesus goes on to explain why this is so important in the final few verses here…

Mark 8:35-37 (ESV) – 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul?

The word “life” is the same word translated “soul” in these verses.  It is the Greek word ψυχή and it means more than earthly life and more than one’s spirit.  It is everything that a person is as an integrated whole.  It is our body and soul… our personality and intellect… it is everything that makes a person who they are.  Jesus says that those who would hold on to themselves as they are will lose everything they are… but those who lose all that they once were for the sake of Jesus and the good news of the coming kingdom of God in Jesus… they will be saved.

What good is it if we gain everything this world has to offer… but we lose everything we are for eternity?

What is our eternal soul worth?  More than we can pay.  That is why Jesus came to suffer and die.  He died to pay the price to redeem our souls from God’s judgment.  We can never pay that price.  We should be clear about that.  Jesus is not saying that if we practice self-denial and sacrifice that we can save our own souls.  What He is describing is the response demanded of the gospel.  Instead of striving for our own salvation… seeking to be pleasing in the sight of God all on our own… we abandon ourselves and our sinfulness and our efforts to be good before God, and we trust in Jesus… following Him… relying upon Him to save us.  What we see described here is repentance and faith in Jesus.  In other words, Jesus says, “If you want to be one of My people, then you will give up your own self-seeking desires and die to self… being willing to give up all that you are… and continue in following my example… and I will give you eternal life which never ends.”

Not everyone is willing to do this.  Some will be “ashamed” of Jesus… and Jesus says He will be ashamed of them when He comes again in glory and power with the holy angels.

What does it mean to be “ashamed” of Jesus?  Notice that those who are ashamed of Him are associated with this “adulterous and sinful generation.”  They are those who reject who Jesus is… the Christ… the Suffering Servant… and those who fail to deny themselves… die to self… and follow after Jesus.  And those who reject Him… will be rejected by Jesus when He comes in judgment.

What do we learn from this passage of Scripture?

It is essential to know who Jesus is.  He is the Christ… God’s Anointed… His Suffering Servant, who died and rose again so that we might be saved from our sin and receive the gift of eternal life. 

Knowing who Jesus is demands a response from us… it demands repentance and faith… for otherwise we cannot be saved.

It is essential to follow Jesus’ example.  To do otherwise is to risk our very soul.

If we know who Jesus is… and we are truly trusting in Him… then our lives will begin to be patterned after His.  We won’t do this perfectly in this life… but we will begin to deny our selfish desires and sinful urges.  We will turn away from the people we once were.  We will begin to value Jesus above all else and the result… at least at times… will be hardship and suffering in the here and now.  But it is worth it… because the result is receiving eternal life.

Remember the example we opened with of Ernest Hemingway?  He had everything life could offer… but did he know who Jesus is?  Did he understand what Jesus came to accomplish?

  We can’t know for sure, because we can’t see the heart of man.  But I think it is probably safe to say that I don’t think so…  because there seems to be no evidence of repentance and faith in him.  He chose to hold on to himself… to indulge himself… to live his life in pursuit of all that the world had to offer, rather than deny himself and take up his cross and follow Jesus.  He gained the whole world… but I fear that he lost his soul… all because he didn’t truly understand who Jesus is and what He has done…

How about you?

Do you know who Jesus is?

Do you know what He has accomplished?

What are you living for?

Are you hoping in Him?

Would you rather have the things of this life?  Or Jesus?

Remember the words of Jesus… “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”

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This is part 3 of a 6 part series on the Gospel of Mark.

Last week in our mid-week Bible study, we examined Mark 1-3 and saw how the inspired author this gospel account described the authority of Jesus in His teaching and preaching.  But what was this authoritative teaching like?  What was Jesus’ teaching method?  What did He emphasize?  These are important questions to answer, because if Jesus spoke with authority that must be obeyed, then we need to have some understanding of what He taught.

As we move into Mark 4, we have one of the few extended accounts of Jesus’ authoritative preaching in the Gospel of Mark.  I was torn as to what passage we should study in this particular unit in Mark.  I almost skipped over this passage, because, of all the parables of Jesus, this one… commonly called the Parable of the Sower…is probably one of the most well-known, if not the most well known.  But the more I studied, the more I became convinced that this parable was important.  In fact I became convinced that it was of the utmost importance if we wanted to understand the teaching of Jesus.  Look at Mark 4:13

Mark 4:13 (ESV) – 13 And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?

Notice how Jesus places a priority on this parable.  Why?  Because this parable lays out for us the purpose of Jesus’ teaching and what our response should be to His teaching.

With that said… let’s dive into this passage of Scripture describing the authoritative teaching ministry of Jesus…

Mark 4:1-2 (ESV) – 1 Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2 And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them:

Notice Mark tells us here that there was a large crowd gathered to hear Jesus teach.  This is no wonder given the miracles He performed.  But we are told here that there were so many that special accommodations had to be made so that everyone could hear Him.  They didn’t have sound systems in their day, so they had to make do with natural acoustics.  Jesus went out on a boat and sat down (i.e. the posture of a Jewish rabbi) so that everyone could see Him and hear Him on the shore.

Take the time to picture the scene.  People were everywhere. They were all gathered around to hear Jesus teach.  The earthly obstacles were removed.  Everyone could hear the words… but the question is whether or not they will truly hear the message which Jesus is teaching… and how will they respond to this teaching.

But before we get into that… notice how Jesus taught them…

We are told that He taught them in parables. 

What is a parable?  The Greek term is παραβολή and it literally means “to throw alongside.”  A parable is a story or extended illustration which is laid alongside a spiritual truth.

Why would Jesus teach in parables?  Sometimes they are hard to understand.  If you read many commentaries on the parables of Jesus, you will quickly see that there are numerous opinions and interpretations as to the meanings of some of the parables.  In fact, even Jesus’ closest followers had trouble understanding some of the parables…

Mark 4:10 (ESV) – 10 And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables.

Since parables are notoriously difficult to understand, why did Jesus teach in parables?  Jesus tells us why in verses 11-12

Mark 4:11-12 (ESV) – 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.”

Jesus said that “to you”… meaning to His followers… the “mystery of the kingdom of God” was revealed.  There are two important points made here.  First, this parable is about the kingdom of God and it reveals a “mystery.”  Secondly, this parable is specifically intended to be understood by Jesus’ followers.

So what is the “mystery of the kingdom of God”?  The kingdom of God is the rule of God over His people and the earth.  In the Old Testament this is often described as a coming time of judgment upon the wicked and salvation for God’s people.  It is pictured as a time of punishment and blessing.  But here, Jesus states that the “mystery” of the kingdom is revealed to His followers.  The term rendered “mystery” is μυστήριον which refers to something previously hidden, but now revealed.  The mystery revealed here is in how the kingdom is coming about.

In 1st century Judaism, the kingdom of God was anticipated as arriving suddenly in power in and through the person of the Messiah, who would establish national Israel as the center of the world and usher in a time of peace and prosperity for the Jews.  But this is not how the kingdom of God was being fulfilled in Jesus.  It would come about in small and steady growth through the acceptance of the teaching of Jesus.  This is the mystery being made known to them.

This “mystery” was revealed to Jesus’ followers, but “to those outside” all the teaching was in parables.  Who are those outside?  They are outside Jesus’ followers.  They are those who are outside the true people of God.  They are those outside the blessings of the kingdom of God.  For them… the teaching of Jesus is nothing more than an interesting story.  And Jesus tells us why in the next verse… “so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven” (Mk 4:12.)

What is Jesus saying here?  He seems to be saying that they will see and hear the teaching of Jesus, but they won’t understand it. And this is God’s will, “lest they turn and be forgiven.”

Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 6 here…

Isaiah 6:8-13 (ESV) – 8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.” 9 And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “ ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ 10 Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” 11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, 12 and the Lord removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. 13 And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump.

Here we see the promise of God that He will send His Word to His people through His prophet… but most of them won’t understand the Word.  Seeing they will not see and hearing they will not understand… because if they did, they would repent and be forgiven… and that isn’t God’s will in their case.  Only a small remnant would be saved.

Why would God do this?  In the context of Isaiah 6, it is clear that the Israelites had brought this judgment upon themselves.  In Isaiah 1-5, we see repeatedly how the Word of God had come to them… and they repeatedly thumbed their nose at it.  In the context of Mark 4… it seems like the same thing is happening.

Look at the end of Mark 3 and what do we see?  Two accounts of people rejecting the truth of God in Jesus.  His own family thought He was out of His mind (Mk 3:21.)  But, more importantly, the religious leaders accused Him of being of the devil.  They seem to have committed what Jesus refers to as “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”… resisting the work of God in Christ as declare by the Spirit… and Jesus says there is no forgiveness for this sin.

Do you think this is why Jesus’ teaching was in parables?  Do you think His teaching was hidden from many because they were guilty of this unforgiveable sin?

                Ultimately God is sovereign in the revelation of His “mysteries.”  God decides who will see and hear and understand His truth and He bestows this understanding upon His people as a gift of His grace (see Lk 10:21-22.)

Jesus makes it clear that the mystery of the kingdom of God is made known to God’s people through His parables, but it is hidden from those who hardened their hearts against Jesus…

But this truth won’t be hidden forever.  Look at verses 21-22

Mark 4:21-22 (ESV) – 21 And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? 22 For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light.

What is the purpose of a lamp?  Not to be hidden.  The purpose of a lamp is to give off light.  Jesus and His teaching would shine forth.  It would be hidden for a time, but it will be brought to light one day for all, probably through the future proclamation of His people, but ultimately in the day when the kingdom of God is fully consummated.

One thing that we should see here in Jesus’ teaching is the relationship between human responsibility and divine sovereignty.  God is sovereign in when and where and how He reveals His truth.  But at the same time, people are responsible for hardening their hearts and for rejecting the truth which God reveals.  These two truths are laid out side by side here… God is sovereign… and man is responsible.  Jesus acknowledges both of these truths and both of these truths shape the method of His teaching.  And as we examine the parables here in Mark 4, we see very specifically how both human responsibility and divine sovereignty involved in the coming of the kingdom of God.

In the first parable given here in Mark 4 we see human responsibility highlighted…

Mark 4:1-9, 14-20 (ESV) – 1 Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2 And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” 9 And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”…14 The sower sows the word. 15 And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. 16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 17 And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18 And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 20 But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”

This parable is commonly called “The Parable of the Sower”… but the sower is really the least important aspect of this parable.  Furthermore, the seed… which is identified as “the Word” (Mk 4:14)… never changes.  The one variable in this parable is the type of soil. So it would probably be more appropriate to call this “The Parable of the Soils.”

All of these different soils represent different types of hearers:

First we have the “Hardened Soil.”  The Word never penetrates here.  Like the beaten down and hard-pressed ground of a pathway, nothing penetrates into this person’s heart.  And if the hardness of their heart was not enough, the devil comes and snatches the Word away so that they will not believe (cf. II Cor 4:3-6.)  The scribes and Pharisees as described in the Gospel of Mark are good examples of this type of hearer (i.e. see Mk 3:22-30), as are the people of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth (Mk 6:1-6.)

Secondly, we have the “Shallow Soil.”  This individual gets excited about the Word (i.e. they “receive it with joy”), but when he faces persecution on account of the Word, he falls away.  We might say this is a “fair-weather Christian.”  When things are good, they enjoy the things of God, but they do not endure when times get hard.  And since they do not hold fast to the gospel, they are not truly Christians (see Col 1:21-23, Heb 3:6, 3:14.)

Third, we have the “Distracted Soil.”  This person hears the Word, but they are distracted by the things of this world and they never bring forth fruit (i.e. Christian character and service.)  A good example of this is described by Mark in the person of the rich young ruler (Mk 10:17-22.)  He wanted the blessing of eternal life, but he wanted the things of this earth more.

Before we move on to the fourth soil, we should notice that 3 out of the 4 soils do not bring forth fruit.  Now some scholars think it is pressing the details of the parable too far to say that Jesus is implying that three-quarters of those who hear the Word will ultimately reject it.  Although I don’t believe Jesus is being mathematically precise, we should remember that Jesus is the One who urged His hearers to “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt 7:13-14.)  Given this explicit statement by Jesus, we should expect that the majority of those who hear the message of gospel will not respond with saving faith.

But, although many will ultimately reject the message which Jesus preached, some will respond rightly to the Word.  The fourth soil described here is the “Receptive Soil.”  This person hears the Word and accepts it. The Greek word rendered “accept” is παραδέχομαι and it carries the idea of welcoming something warmly, as one welcomes a friend (Louw-Nida, παραδέχομαι.)  This person embraces the Word and they don’t let it go.  They cling to the gospel of Jesus Christ and the result is that they bring forth fruit.

However, notice that of those who hear and understand the Word, they bring forth fruit in differing degrees.  Some bring forth thirtyfold, some sixtyfold and some hundredfold.  Although there are differing degrees of fruitfulness, we might forget that all three of these are tremendous harvests in 1st century Palestine.  A ten to fifteen fold harvest would be considered abundant in the 1st century.  Therefore, these are all abundant harvests.

But what makes the difference between these three yields?  The difference seems to be in the way they hear the Word.  After all, this is the point of the whole parable.  How one hears the Word matters.  This is why three times in this passage Jesus urges His audience to take care how they hear (Mk 4:9, 23, 24.)  Notice specifically what Jesus says in verses 24-25

Mark 4:24-25 (ESV) – 24 And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. 25 For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

What does it mean to “use” what we have been given?  No doubt it refers to obedience to the truth which we have received.  But it also seems to refer to proclaiming this truth to others.

Think for a moment… who is the sower?  Jesus never explicitly identifies the “sower” in His interpretation.  Certainly Jesus is the Sower in this immediate context.  But by extension, this refers to those sent out by Jesus to proclaim His gospel to the world.  In Mk 1:16-17, Jesus promises His new disciples that they will become “fishers of men.”  In Mk 3:14, we see that Jesus appointed 12 apostles so that they might be with Him and then go out to preach the gospel.  In Mk 6:7-13, we see Jesus actually send out the 12 apostles, two by two, to proclaim the Word of God and call men and women to repent of their sins.  And as He sends them out, He tells them that some will receive their message… and some will reject it.  Some will be receptive soil… and some will be hardened and shallow and distracted.

This same responsibility to “sow the seed of the Word” falls upon all believers today (i.e. Mk 16:15, Matt 28:18-20.)  Our responsibility is to sow the seed… regardless of what kind of soil we encounter.  I believe this is, at least in part, what Jesus is talking about when He says we are to “use” what we have been given.  As we proclaim the Word of God to others, we grow in our understanding of the Word and our experience of the grace of God.  In other words, more is added to us.

The whole point of this parable seems to be an admonition to strive to hear the Word of God rightly.  The emphasis here falls upon our responsibility to hear God’s Word and embrace it in repentance and faith.  But in the next two parables, Jesus emphasizes the other side of this coin.  Rather than focus on human responsibility, Jesus emphasizes the sovereignty of God in bringing about His kingdom.

Mark 4:26-29 (ESV) – 26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Here we have the same picture of a man sowing seed… and what happens?  The seed takes root and grows all by itself. 

We should note that the sower does nothing but scatter the seed.  The growth happens while he is sleeping.  The same is true for us as Christians.  We sow the seed of the Word of God, but we are not responsible for the growth.  It is God who brings forth the growth of His kingdom by His Spirit, through His Word.

The Apostle Paul makes much the same point in I Corinthians 3:6-7

1 Corinthians 3:6-7 (ESV) – 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.

Although Christians have a responsibility to sow the seed… and all human beings have a responsibility before God to hear and respond rightly to His Word… it is God who brings about the growth.

If we correlate these two parables, an important principle comes to the forefront.  As Christians we are called to proclaim the gospel, but it is not our job to evaluate the soil of other’s hearts.  We don’t know who will respond and who won’t.  Some may seem to be hardened beyond the point of salvation, yet no one is beyond the power of God to save (i.e. consider the apostle Paul.  Could there be a person who seemed more like “hardened soil” then him.  Yet God in His grace softened his heart and saved him.)  Despite the fact that many will reject the Word, we can be confident that God’s kingdom will grow, because God is the One bringing forth the growth.

And Jesus assures us here that God will bring about growth in His kingdom…

Mark 4:30-34 (ESV) – 30 And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” 33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. 34 He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.

Here Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed.  Some liberal scholars have used this parable in their argument that the Bible is not infallible, stating that science has proven that the mustard seed is not the smallest seed in the world.  This is a misunderstanding of Jesus’ point here.  This is a Hebraism… a common Jewish turn of phrase.  The mustard seed was the smallest seed known in 1st century Palestine.  Jesus is simply stating that the kingdom of God, like the mustard seed, starts out incredibly small.  But in time it will grow, until it is so large the birds of the air, which at one point could have swallowed the seed whole, are now able to roost in its branches.  This mention of the “birds of the air” could be a reference to the Gentiles, since this imagery seems to be used this way in the Old Testament (Daniel 4:11-12, 21, Ezekiel 17:23, 31:6.)  Whether we should interpret this element of the parable in this way or not, the central point is that the kingdom will grow to an immense size, even though it appeared to be rather small at the time.

Both of these last two parables, emphasize the sovereign work of God in bringing about His kingdom.  Nothing can stop the growth of God’s kingdom.  Hard hearts… shallow hearers… distracted people… none of these can stop the work of God.  God is sovereign in the growth of His kingdom.

What can we learn from the teaching of Jesus here in Mark 4?

Jesus’ teaching emphasized the coming of the kingdom of God.  And in explaining the kingdom of God, Jesus described both the responsibility of all human beings to hear and respond to the good news of the kingdom and the sovereign work of God in building His kingdom.

We need to realize that it matters how we respond to the authoritative teaching of Jesus.  It matters what we do with His Word.  We must strive to hear and understand the message of God’s Word.  Specifically, it is imperative that we understand the message of coming kingdom of God.  God is establishing His kingdom on the earth and the result of this will be judgment upon the wicked and salvation for His people.  Therefore, we must repent and believe the gospel because the kingdom of God is at hand (Mk 1:15.)

How do you hear the Word of God?  Do you strive to hear and understand His Word?  Do you welcome it and strive to obey it?

Furthermore, we are to be “sowers” of this “seed.”  As those to whom God has graciously revealed “the mysteries of the kingdom”, we are to function as lights in the world, proclaiming this good news to the world and calling for men and women to repent and believe in Jesus Christ.

Do we share the gospel of God’s kingdom in Jesus Christ with the world around us?  We live in an increasingly post-Christian culture and it is more and more common for people to be quite ignorant about Jesus and the kingdom of God.  Are we faithful lights in a dark world?  Do you “use” the truth which has been revealed to you in declaring it to others?

Although we have a responsibility in the coming of God’s kingdom, we must also realize that God is ultimately in control.  He is sovereign and His kingdom will come in power and fullness in His time and in His chosen method.  And nothing can stop it.  Though the rule of God over His people and the earth may seem small at times… though evil may abound and justice may seem far off… we can be assured that the kingdom of God will come.

This should give us confidence… no matter what the world around us looks like. It may seem that few people respond rightly to the message of Jesus, but we need not worry.  This doesn’t catch God off guard… and it doesn’t hinder His kingdom in any way.  The kingdom of God is at hand… and nothing can stop it!!!

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This is part 2 of a 6 part series on the Gospel of Mark.

What comes to mind when you hear the word “authority”?  Does it evoke positive or negative feelings in you?  Most of us don’t like the idea of authority.  Particularly in our current cultural context, we tend to distrust authority.  We tend to be fiercely independent in our culture.  We value our freedom and we don’t want anyone telling us what to be do.  Therefore, we distrust authority.  Furthermore, we tend to be relativistic, believing that there are no absolute right and wrong.  And if there is no absolute right and wrong… then there can be no absolute authority, determining right and wrong for us.

This rejection of authority is nothing new.  It has been with us for some time.  Where did this rebellion against authority begin?

We see the first evidence of this rejection of authority with the fall of Satan.  Consider the words of Isaiah, describing what many believe to be the fall of Satan into sin..

Isaiah 14:12-14 (ESV) – 12 “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star (“Lucifer” – NKJV), son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! 13 You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; 14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’

Lucifer’s desire is to usurp the authority of God.  He wants to be the ultimate authority.  He wants to be God.

This same rejection of authority carried over to the fall of humanity in Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Genesis 3:1-6 (ESV) – 1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.

Notice how Satan tempts Eve with the same temptation which led to his own fall… the desire to be like God.  The temptation here is to reject the authority of God in an effort to become her own authority… so that she might be like God.

This rejection of authority… particularly the authority of God… continues all throughout Scripture.  And it is still with us today… and will continue to be with us until the end of time.

Recognizing and obeying the authority of God is of the utmost importance for it is connected with our eternal destiny. 

This authority is manifested most clearly in Jesus and this becomes clear in the Gospel of Mark as we examine the authority of Jesus in Mark chapters 1-3.

Begin by looking at Mark 1:21-22

Mark 1:21-22 (ESV) – 21 And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. 22 And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.

Here we see Jesus, after the calling of His first formal disciples… entering Capernaum, the city which would function as His base of operations during His Galilean ministry.  And what is He doing here as He kicks off His ministry?  He is teaching in the synagogue. 

In 1st century synagogue worship, any qualified Jewish male could speak a word exhortation to those present.  But something about the way in which Jesus taught was different than the teaching which was common in the synagogue.

What made His teaching different?  “…He taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” 

What does this mean?  The scribes of Jesus’ day spent a considerable amount of time explaining what Scripture meant… but in doing so, they tended to quote other rabbinical sources (Walter Wessel, Mark, Expositors Bible Commentary, 627, and Sinclair Ferguson, Let’s Study Mark, 15.)  In other words, their teaching rested upon the authority of others.

But Jesus’ teaching was different.  He taught “as one who had authority”… literally one who was in possession of ongoing and continuous authority (i.e. present participle.)

What did this teaching with authority look like?  Mark doesn’t give us an example here, but think back to the Sermon on the Mount recorded for us in Matthew 5-7.  Jesus repeatedly tells His hearers, “You have heard it said…” meaning that they had heard it said in the Old Testament and had heard it interpreted by the rabbis.  But then Jesus would say, “But I say unto you…”  He didn’t need any other source of authority. He didn’t cite anyone else to back up His statements.  He spoke as if He had absolute authority in Himself to interpret the commands of God in the Old Testament… not to mention… absolute authority in Himself to issue commands to God’s people.

This is what Jesus is doing here… teaching the people in the synagogue with absolute authority.  And this astonished them.  The Greek is very strong here.  The term is κπλήσσω and it literally means “to smite” or “to strike” with a enough force to drive something away (ἐκπλήσσω, Strong’s Concordance.)  The tense of the verb (imperfect tense) tells us that they were continually struck by the authority of His teaching.  In other words… the way in which He preached struck them right between the eyes… and it had a lasting effect on them.

What was Jesus teaching here?  We don’t know for sure.  But in the context here in Mark 1, we have just seen Jesus proclaiming that  “…The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15.)  In other words, the time for the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Old Testament had arrived.  The Kingdom of God was near… meaning the King had to be near.  By preaching with authority… Jesus is clearly proclaiming Himself to be this promised King (i.e. the Jewish Messiah.)  And the King is calling people to repent… meaning they must change their mind about God and sin and turn away from their sin… and believe in the good news that God is providing salvation for His people and drawing some into His kingdom forever and ever.

What gives Jesus the right to do this?  How could a 1st century Jew… not to mention us today… know that Jesus indeed has this authority?

In order to answer this question, Mark provides us with a number of events from the ministry of Jesus which demonstrate to us the authority of Jesus…)

We are going to move quickly through these and we won’t be dealing with every aspect of these passages, but I think we see the authority of Jesus demonstrated for us in four distinct ways here in the first 3 chapters of Mark… beginning in Mark 1:23-27

1)    Authority over demons – Mark 1:23-27

Mark 1:23-27 (ESV) – 23 And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, 24 “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

Notice that Jesus doesn’t go looking for trouble… but trouble finds Him in the form of this demon-possessed man.  And this demon clearly knows who Jesus is.  He calls Jesus, “The Holy One of God.”  This demon also seems to understand what Jesus will one day do to him and those like him.  Jesus will destroy them.  Now some scholars have seen in this encounter an attempt by this demon to control Jesus through calling Him by name (Walter Wessel, Mark, Expositors Bible Commentary, 627.)  Whether this is true or not… it is completely ineffective.  Because when Jesus commands this demon to come out of the man… he immediately obeys.

This is a powerful testimony to the authority of Jesus.  Despite the great power of demons… they are no match for Jesus.  With a simple word… they are cast out before Him.  And this wasn’t an isolated incident…

Mark 1:34 (ESV) – 34 And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

Notice that He cast out “many demons.”

This is something which was unheard of in the Old Testament.  There are no descriptions of demons being cast out in the Old Testament (except possibly David playing the harp for Saul in I Samuel 16:14-23), although there were Jewish exorcists in the day of Jesus.  However, they tended to utilize incantations and elaborate rituals in their casting out of demons (i.e. read the apocryphal book of Tobit for a helpful description of typical rabbinic thought in the 1st century regarding the exorcism of demons.)   But Jesus needed no magical formulas to cast out this demon.  This was something new in the history of redemption.  And those who were present recognized what was going on… and they immediately saw that Jesus possessed authority… because He could cast out the demons with a word.

This is only the first demonstration of Jesus’ authority here in Mark 1-3.  The second is Jesus’ authority over sickness, beginning in Mark 1:29-31

2)    Authority over sickness – Mark 1:29-31

Mark 1:29-31 (ESV) – 29 And immediately he left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her. 31 And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

  1. Luke’s gospel adds that He “rebuked the fever” (Luke 4:39)… again… He is exercising His authority… and she is immediately healed.

Perhaps even more significant is the healing of the leper in Mark 1:40-42.  Leprosy was probably the most dreaded disease in 1st century Palestine.  It not only made one sick… it rendered one ritually unclean and, therefore, cut off from the worship of God and fellowship with all God’s people (Lev 13:45-46.)  Yet Jesus… with a word and a touch… heals this man of this dreaded disease.  He does what only God can do… He cleanses the one who is unclean.  He can remove ritual uncleanness. 

This leads us into the third demonstration of Jesus’ authority… which is His authority over sin…

3)    Authority to forgive sin –

Mark 2:1-12 (ESV) – 1 And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2 And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. 3 And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. 4 And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. 5 And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” 12 And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”

It is interesting that when this man is brought to Jesus, He doesn’t immediately heal him.  Instead, He forgives his sins.   This doesn’t go unnoticed by the scribes who are present and they immediately accuse Jesus of blasphemy.  Why?  Because only God can forgive sin.  Sin is ultimately sin against God (Psalm 51:4)… and only the wounded Party can forgive this offense.  Therefore, if Jesus is claiming to forgive sin… then who is He claiming to be?  None other than God Himself.

Jesus knows what they are thinking and so He performs this miraculous healing.  And we are told why in verse 10… so “that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” (Mk 2:10.)  He heals this man so that others may know that He has authority which only God has.

This leads to the fourth demonstration of Jesus’ authority in this passage, His authority over the institutions of God.

4)    Authority over the Institutions of God – Mark 2:23-3:6

Mark 2:23-3:6 (ESV) – 23 One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: 26 how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” 27 And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” 1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. 2 And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” 4 And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Jesus’ disciples here are picking grain on the Sabbath, rubbing them in their hands to separate the wheat from the chaff (Lk 6:1), and eating, because they were hungry.  The Pharisees considered this a violation of God’s ordinance against working on the Sabbath.  But Jesus claims to possess the authority to interpret what is lawful and unlawful on the Sabbath.  In fact, in verse 28, He proclaims Himself to be “the Lord of the Sabbath”?

Think through the radical nature of this statement.  After all, what was the Sabbath?  It was a day set aside for rest and to remember the salvation which God had provided for Israel (Gen 2:3, Ex 20:8-11, Deut 5:12-15.)  But more importantly, who established the Sabbath?  God did.  It was God who commanded His people to keep the Sabbath Day holy.  With this in mind… who is Lord of the Sabbath?  God is.  So what is Jesus claiming for Himself?  He is claiming divine authority.  He is claiming to be God.

Now anyone could make this claim, but Jesus demonstrates that He is indeed Lord of the Sabbath in Mark 3:1-6, where He heals the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath.  This healing is clearly an act of God.  Only the power of God could instantly heal this man, causing life and vitality to course back into this withered hand.  And if Jesus was falsely claiming divine authority for Himself… then why would God heal this man on the Sabbath?  No… this is a way of affirming Jesus’ earlier statement.  He is the Lord of the Sabbath… therefore, He is God Himself.

In four different ways here in these three chapters, we see the authority of Jesus demonstrated:

  1. He has authority over demons…
  2. He has authority over sickness…
  3. He has authority to forgive sins…
  4. He has authority over the institutions which God has established…

In other words… Jesus has authority because He is God Himself.

So how should we respond to His authority?  We see two basic responses to His authority here in Mark 1-3…)

1)    Some rejected Him…

In Mark 2:6-7, we see the scribes accuse Him of blasphemy.  In Mark 3:6, their rejection of Him of so great that they begin to plot how they might kill Him.  In Mark 3:22, they accuse Him of being of the devil (whom they call “Beelzebub.”) 

Even His own family rejected His authority.  They thought He was “out of His mind” (Mark 3:21) and were seeking to end His ministry by taking Him home.

We see these same responses today.  Some people accuse Jesus of blasphemy, claiming that He is not who He says He is, denying that He is the promised Messiah and Son of God.  And if they don’t accuse Him of blasphemy, they will accuse the apostles or the early church or Constantine or whoever of putting blasphemous words in the mouth of Jesus.  They deny that Jesus is God Himself.

Some are trying to erase His memory… we might say put Him to death historically… since they find His teachings opposed to their own beliefs.  These are people like Thomas Jefferson who deleted all references to the miraculous in his version of the New Testament.  We see it today in the teaching of liberal theologians like the Jesus Seminar who spend their time standing in judgment over the words of Jesus and making decisions among themselves about what are the true statements of Jesus and what aren’t.

Some accuse Him of being wicked.  Some think He was misguided and foolish… maybe even insane.  If you read what people outside the church write about Jesus… (and sadly some inside “the church” as well)… you won’t have to read long before you will find all of these responses.

But we should be careful… because those who reject the teaching of Jesus will be subject to His judgment.

The pinnacle of this warning seems to come from the lips of Jesus in Mark 3:28-30, when He warns against the sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit… which is essentially denying that Jesus is who He says He is and attributing His words and power to Satan.  Dr. Alan Cole describes this sin in this way…

“This is the sin of the willfully blind, who persistently refuse the illumination of the Spirit, oppose the Spirit’s work, and justify themselves in doing so by deliberately misrepresenting Him” (Alan Cole, The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 85-86.) 

It is rejecting that Jesus is who He says He is, calling good evil and hard-heartedly resisting the gospel call and repenting of sin and trusting in Jesus for salvation.  For this sin, Jesus says there is no forgiveness.  Dr. Sinclair Ferguson offers us some sober words regarding this warning…

“This sin takes its contemporary forms.  It is the sin of regarding conversion to Christ and obedience to Him as Lord as the ultimate folly. This was precisely the willful blindness to Christ and hardness of heart against him which these theologians had begun to display.  It is often said, with some wisdom, that if you are anxious that you have committed blasphemy against the Spirit, you need not fear – for this blasphemy is always accompanied by complex indifference to such sin.  But that advice cannot be treated casually, for the person who sins against the Lord, and is at first sensitive to the potential consequences of his sin, may one day be the very person who becomes indifferent to it. The vital thing is to retain that sensitivity throughout the whole of our lives.  It can be retained only by keeping close to Christ; and doing so will guard us from sin” (Sinclair Ferguson, Let’s Study Mark, 46-47.)

Only by listening carefully to the authority of Jesus and striving to respond rightly to Him can we be certain that we have not committed this fearful offense.

Many people rejected the authority of Jesus.  However, there is another response described here…

2)    Some yielded to His authority…

We see this in Peter and Andrew and James and John (Mark 1:16-20.)  We see this in the tax collector, Levi (Mark 2:13-14.)  All of them yielded to the authority of Jesus.  When called by Jesus… they left everything and followed Him.  They immediately obeyed Him.  Not perfectly, mind you.  But they demonstrate what it means to repent and believe the gospel.  They turned away from the life and people they once were… and they trusted in Jesus to save them.  They put all their eggs in His basket and began to follow Him… trusting in Him and striving to live lives pleasing to Him.

Jesus promises that the one who responds rightly to His authority and “does  the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mk 3:35.)  Yielding to the authority of Jesus means that one is a member of the family of God.

I think Jesus sums up the different results of these two responses powerfully in Matthew 7:24-29… which is, I think, a parallel passage to the text we started with here today…

Matthew 7:24-29 (ESV) – 24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” 28 And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, 29 for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.

What is our response to the authority of Jesus?

He is the incarnate and living Word of God (Jn 1:1.)  He has clearly spoken with authority in Scripture.  And I believe Mark makes it very clear that Jesus is indeed very God of very God…

How do we respond to Him? 

Are we more like Peter and Andrew and James and John and Levi? 

Or are we more like the scribes and Pharisees?

Jesus calls us to repent of our sins and trust in Him.  He calls us to leave behind the people we once were and follow Him.  This is the command of Jesus to us.

How do you respond to His authority?

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The following was a sermon preached at Sovereign Grace Baptist Church in Globe, Arizona on Sunday, May 3, 2009 and is part 1 in a 6 part series on the Gospel of Mark.

How something begins is important, isn’t it?  I mean… if we start out on the wrong foot… things rarely go the way we want them to.  Beginnings matter.  They set the stage for what is to come. 

  1. Or take for example, the opening lines from Charles Dickens’ classic novel, “A Tale of Two Cities”…

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” (Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities.”)

What does this tell us about what is to come?  It tells us that we should expect great things… and terrible things all at once.  Acts of horror and nobility performed side by side.  It prepares us to see the best of life and the worst of life… all at the same time.

Without this opening, could we understand the story?  Sure… but we understand the story more completely when we understand how it begins.

As Christians, we believe that we are part of God’s story… a story which finds its climax in Jesus Christ. 

But where does the story of Jesus begin?    Many people would say that the story of Jesus begins in the New Testament… in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  But is this really the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ?  Doesn’t it go back a little bit farther than that?  Don’t we find the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament?  And if we want to truly understand the message of Jesus, then don’t we need to start there?

Open your Bibles with me if you will to the Gospel of Mark, chapter 1 and… together… let’s see where Mark places the beginning of good news of Jesus Christ…

Mark 1:1-15 (ESV) – 1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, 3 the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ ” 4 John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” 12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him. 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Verse 1 is important for understanding the entire gospel of Mark.  There is an old saying among speech writers… “Tell them what you are going to say… tell them… then tell them what you said…”  Mark adheres to that rule here in verse 1.  He tells us exactly what he is going to talk about.  He is writing about the “gospel.”

The term translated “gospel” is the Greek word εαγγέλιον, which means “good message” or “good news.”  But here, I think it has an even more specific meaning.  Most scholars agree that Mark is writing to a Roman audience (Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction: The Gospels and Acts, 55-59) and, in that cultural context, this term had the specific connotation of describing an “event which introduces a new situation for the world” (Ralph Martin, “Where the Action Is”: A Bible Commentary for Laymen, 10.)  It was used to describe military victories, or the birth or coronation of a king (Martin, 10.)

Mark is describing something which will impact the world… a new King has come… and victory has been won… and this is good news.

This good news is described as “the gospel of Jesus Christ… the Jewish Messiah… who is the Son of God.”  This is the theme of Mark’s gospel.  When we study this passage or any other in the Gospel of Mark, we should be constantly looking to see what we can learn about Jesus… the Christ… the Son of God… for this is good news for us.  Keep this in mind as we look at these 15 verses. We don’t have time to deal with each verse in as much detail as I would like, but, as we examine this passage, be looking for what we can learn about the gospel of Jesus Christ here.

Specifically, we are going to see three things here today…  

1)      The Beginning of the Gospel in verses 1-8…

2)      The Fulfillment of the Gospel in verses 9-13…

3)      And the Response to the Gospel in verses 14-15…

Notice in verse 1 that Mark begins by speaking of “the beginning” of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Matthew and Luke both place the beginning of the gospel at the birth of Jesus.  John places the beginning of the gospel a little farther back.  John places the beginning of the gospel in eternity past when he states that “In the beginning was the Word… (that is Jesus)… and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1.)

But where does Mark place the beginning of the gospel?  He places the beginning of the gospel in the Old Testament.  Look at verse 2… “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mk 1:2-3.)

Mark places the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the message of the Old Testament prophets.  He mentions Isaiah specifically, but he is actually quoting from two different passages in the Old Testament… Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3.  Mark is telling us the gospel of Jesus Christ actually begins hundreds of years before His birth and ministry. The gospel begins with the promises of God found in the Old Testament.

So… in order to understand this “good news”, we need to go back to the Old Testament to see what God promised.  Let’s start with Malachi 3:1-5

Malachi 3:1-5 (ESV) – 1 “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. 5 “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

 

Notice carefully what is being said here.  First of all, God is the One speaking here and, in verse 1, God promises that He is coming.  God will send a messenger before Him and this messenger will prepare the way for His coming.  But the One who is coming is God Himself.

Verses 2-5 tell us what will happen when God comes.  He will come like fire and soap.  He will burn up the impurity in His people.  He will cleanse His people from their sin.  But not all will be so blessed.  He will also bring judgment upon the wicked. 

If God is coming to the earth… then we all have a problem.  It doesn’t matter who we are.  Each and every one of us has a problem, because we all stand guilty of sin.  And sin cannot exist in the presence of a holy God apart from judgment.  And yet God tells us here that He is coming… whether we are ready or not.  That is why He sent a messenger… to prepare His people for the coming of God in judgment and purification.

This is the first passage quoted by Mark as being part of the beginning of the gospel… the second is found in Isaiah 40 and it tells us a little more about the message of this messenger to come…

Isaiah 40:3-5 (ESV) – 3 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

This messenger will prepare the way of “the LORD”… Yahweh in the Hebrew.  The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who delivered the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt… He is coming.  The glory of Yahweh will be revealed… and all flesh shall see it.  God is coming… and this messenger will prepare His way.

Back in Mark 1, we are told that this messenger is John the Baptist… and he is preparing the way of the LORD by calling the people to repent of their sins and seek forgiveness from God.  He does this by calling the people to baptism.

Now the baptism of John is a little different than Christian baptism today.  Our baptism symbolizes our union with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection.  It is a way of us proclaiming publicly that we are trusting in Him.

John was calling people to admit their need for cleansing from sin.  Baptism was not entirely uncommon in the Judaism of John’s day, but it was almost exclusively reserved for Gentile converts (C.F.D. Moule, The Gospel According to Mark, Cambridge Bible Commentary, 9.)  In other words, only those who were considered to be outside the covenant people of God were baptized.  So you see what John is saying here.  He is telling his Jewish hearers that they are not the people of God.  They are not saved.  They need forgiveness so that they might truly be the people of God.

John doesn’t speak much about how sin can be forgiven, but he called the people to throw themselves upon the mercy of God through “repentance”… meaning to turn away from their sin… and by “confessing their sin” (Mk 1:5ξομολογέω  – literally “saying the same thing out loud”… or speaking out in agreement with God that sin is sin.)  John calls them to turn from sin to God and seek forgiveness for sin from the all-gracious and merciful God… before it is too late. 

It is also clear that there is an urgency to John’s message here, because John understands the beginning of the story.  He understands that he is the messenger preparing the way for the coming of God in purifying power and judgment.  Look at verses 7-8… “…After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.  I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  John does not feel worthy to even remove the sandals of the One who is coming.  This was considered one of the most menial jobs possible among the Jews.  It was below the dignity of the common household servant.  Only the lowliest of slaves would be subjected to the humiliation of removing the sandals of another (F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, 51.)  In other words, John sees the One who is coming as being so great that he is not worthy to serve Him in any capacity… I think… because John recognizes that this One coming is none other than God Himself.

This is supported by the fact that John says the Coming One “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mk 1:8.)  The Holy Spirit is no less than God Himself… and who among humanity would be able to baptize others with God?  Only God can baptize others in Himself.  Besides… again in the Old Testament… we see that God promised that He would do this…

Isaiah 44:1-5 (ESV) – 1 “But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! 2 Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you from the womb and will help you: Fear not, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen. 3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. 4 They shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams. 5 This one will say, ‘I am the Lord’s,’ another will call on the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand, ‘The Lord’s,’ and name himself by the name of Israel.”

Joel 2:28-32 (ESV) – 28 “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29 Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. 30 “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 32 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.

In these passages, it is God who promises to pour out His Spirit in great abundance upon all types of people and the result will be a great revival and salvation for those who are His before “the great and awesome day of the LORD” comes.  This is a blessing promised by God for all those who call upon His name… which is exactly what John is calling the people to do.  He is urging them to repent of their sin… to turn away from their sin and throw themselves upon the mercy of God before He comes… so that they might be saved and blessed by Him rather than suffering His judgment.

For Mark the beginning of the gospel is found in the Old Testament promises of God.  God promised that one day He would visit the earth in glory and power and purify His people from their sin by pouring out His Holy Spirit upon them.  At the same time, God promised that those who were ill-prepared to face Him would be judged in the day of His coming.

This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ… and it is found in the Old Testament.  If we don’t understand God’s Old Testament promises, then we won’t truly and completely understand the message of the New Testament.

I have met a lot of Christians who spend far more time reading and studying the New Testament than they do the Old Testament.  There was a man that I discipled for several years who told me that he could only read so much of the Old Testament before he had to read the New Testament.  I remember him saying that he needed to get out of “Law” and into “Grace.”  I would say that is a wrong understanding of the Old Testament.  The God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament.  The God of the Old Testament is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness and truth” (Ex 34:6)… just as He is in the New Testament.  In fact, the foundation of the New Testament is found in the Old Testament.  If we don’t read the Old Testament and strive to understand it, then we can’t truly grasp how amazing the good news of Jesus Christ truly is.  We see this principle here in Mark 1.  It is only as we understand the ministry of John the Baptist as the one preparing the way for the coming of God as set forth in the Old Testament that we begin to see how amazing the fulfillment is.  This leads us to point 2 in our message, which is the fulfillment of the gospel…

In verses 7-8, John promises that God is coming… but then notice who comes in verse 9… “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee…”  John was preparing the people for the coming of God… but then it is a man who shows up… “Jesus of Nazareth of Galilee”.  Notice very carefully how this highlights his humanity.  He was a man… from a certain city… from a certain region in Israel… neither of which of was all that respectable either (Jn 1:46.)  Mark is telling us in no uncertain terms that the coming of this man, Jesus of Nazareth of Galilee, is the fulfillment of the coming of God promised in the Old Testament.

Please don’t misunderstand me… Jesus is completely and utterly God.  Notice that when He was baptized, the heavens were torn open and God the Father spoke from heaven declaring, “This My Beloved Son in Whom I am well-pleased.”  God promised that He would come… and He has… in His Son.  That is probably also a reference to Old Testament promises.  In Psalm 2:7, we are told that God will one day give all the ends of the earth as an inheritance to His only begotten Son.  But even more importantly, it tells us something about this man, Jesus.  He is the Son of God.  This implies that He is of the same nature as God the Father.  He is what God is… or as the Nicene Creed put it, He is “very God of very God.  He is also literally “the Beloved One”… One who stands in a unique relationship with God like no one else, for He Himself is God.  And in Him, God is “well-pleased”… meaning that Jesus is righteous and without sin.  He is completely pleasing to God because He is indeed God Himself.  But also, it is probably a reference to Isaiah 42:1, where God speaks of His Servant “in whom My soul delights” who will save the weak and bring salvation to Jew and Gentile alike (Isaiah 42:1-4.)

God has fulfilled His promise and come among His people… and this One… Jesus… is completely and utterly God… but He is also completely and utterly man.  He has done this so that He can share in our experience of humanity, for it is only in His humanity that the Son of God can save those who are His in the day of judgment.  It is only because God became man that there is One who can stand between us and a holy God and act as our Mediator.  And Jesus… the Son of God… does this by identifying Himself with us in our fallen humanity.

We see this idea of Jesus identifying Himself with us in several ways here in this passage.  First of all, He was baptized by John in the Jordan River.  Many people have asked why?  If John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sin, then why would Jesus… the sinless Son of God (II Cor 5:21, I Pet 2:22, I Jn 3:5)… need to be baptized?  He didn’t need to be baptized for Himself.  He was baptized for us.  This is a way of Him identifying with sinful human beings.  He didn’t need to confess sin… He didn’t have any… but we do.  He didn’t need to be cleansed from sin… but we do.  He stood with us… He stood in our place as our representative when He was baptized.  Don’t miss this.  The Son of God Almighty is saying, “I stand with them.  Though they are sinners, I will be among them as their representative.  I will be their Savior by identifying myself with fallen humanity.”

Secondly, He identifies Himself with us in our humanity in verses 12-13, where Jesus endured temptation… just like we do… only He succeeded where we fail.  Again… He stood in our place.  God demands perfect righteousness of all who will one day stand in His presence.  Since we, as fallen human beings, can never be perfectly righteous someone had to come and do that for us.  Only God could accomplish this, but, in order to stand in our place, He had to be a man… a perfect man… a sinless man… the God-Man, Jesus Christ.

Thirdly, though we don’t see it explicitly here, later on in the gospel of Mark, Jesus will speak of another baptism which He will face… a baptism of suffering and death which He will endure on behalf of His people (Mark 10:38-39.)  This baptism of suffering is summed up for us in Mark 10:45 where Jesus says…

Mark 10:45 (ESV) – 45 For even the Son of Man (that is… Jesus in His humanity) came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

God came… just as He had promised in the Old Testament… to purify His people… and to do so, He took on human flesh… identifying Himself with us… standing in our place… succeeding where we have failed… and suffering and dying to redeem us from the judgment to come.

This is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…

But remember that those Old Testament promises also spoke of God coming in judgment.  We read in Malachi 3 how God will bring swift judgment against the wicked when He comes.  And yet we see no fulfillment of that in the first coming of Jesus.  He came the first time to identify with us.  He came to save us through living and dying and for us.  He came to purify a people for Himself through redeeming us and by pouring out His Holy Spirit upon us.

But we should not forget that He is coming again…this time in judgment.  In Mark 13, Jesus speaks of the day of His return, when He will come in the clouds with great power and glory and with holy angels at His side (Mk 13:26.)  The apostle Paul tells us that in that day…

…the Lord Jesus (will be) revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.  They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (II Thess 1:7b-9.)

Notice that Paul says that this destiny awaits those “who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.”  This is future for all who do not respond rightly to the good news that we have been discussing today.  How we respond to the gospel matters. 

So what are we to do with this good news?  In our third and final point, Jesus tells us in verses 14-15 in no uncertain terms what response is demanded by this good news…

The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” 

The time of the Old Testament promises of God is fulfilled.  The reign of God over His people and this world is coming about right now in the person of Jesus and His people.

So what are we to do?  Repent of our sins and believe in the gospel.  Just like the people of John’s day, we are to confess our sinfulness before God and turn away from our sin and believe this good news… that God came in human flesh, identifying with us in our sinfulness… living the life we could never live and dying the death that we deserve so that we might be saved and purified and enjoy the blessings of God’s kingdom forever and ever.

Does this describe you?

Do you know that you have sinned?

Do you recognize the fact that you cannot save yourself?

Do you detest your sin?

Have you turned from your sin to God and are your trusting in Jesus Christ to save you?

If not, then I would urge you to do so.  Today is the day of salvation.  Today is the day to call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ… the Beloved Son of God… who became a man and lived and died for His people.  Turn from your sin and trust in Him and you will be saved. 

If you are a Christian, then I would urge you to recognize the fact that the gospel of Jesus Christ begins in the Old Testament.  If we don’t understand how the good news about how Jesus got started, then how can we fully understand the way in which it was fulfilled?

I would urge each and every one of us to get to know our Old Testament better.  Not just as a collection of helpful stories or interesting history about the nation of Israel, but as the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Read the Old Testament so that you might better know the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

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