Tag Archives: #biblestudy

I wonder how Jesus felt about someone else carrying his cross

The cross is where we see Jesus at his most human and most divine. It is heart breaking to read about his anguish, even though we know the triumph to come. This in itself is something Jesus understood – when his friend Lazarus has died (John 11:38-44), Jesus wept even though he knew that in a moment he would raise him to life again.

I feel this emotional pain when I read the account of Jesus‘ arrest and crucifixion. My heart breaks for him when he struggles with God’s will and yet accepts it. Even when an angel appears and strengthens him, Jesus is still in anguish and “he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:42-44).

And this is because of me, I think. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. This is what the cross means. This is what Jesus’ suffering means. His anguish, his pain, his fear, his sorrow – it was mine. It was my fault.

Even though I know what it means. Even though I know what happened next, is still feel the sting of shame that it was my sin that put him there.

And yet even this shame of someone else carrying our punishment is something that Jesus felt. In Luke 23:26 we see that “as they led him away, they seized Simon of Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.

As I was reading in my quiet time, this stood out starkly to me as I contemplated my shame. Jesus, on the road to his own crucifixion, having accepted the will of God, even though bodily broken, was forced to accept the suffering of another on his account.

The crossbar of the cross is estimated to have weighed around 32-42 kilograms (or 70-90 pounds) and the whole cross in the order of 136 kilograms (or 300 pounds). Even carrying the crossbar would have been a struggle for Simon on a long journey through jeering crowds along hot dusty roads to the crucifixion site – the whole cross so much more. And Simon must have tripped and strained and stumbled his way behind Jesus. And Jesus, walking in front, knew he was there. And knew he must have been suffering.

If I was Jesus, I would have felt shame. Shame for the pain of Simon, picked out of the crowd at random and forced to suffer because of me.

But this is where again we remember that Jesus was fully human. He felt what I feel when I contemplate the cross. He knows and understands us and our emotions so well – because he felt them.

And this is where I remember not to stay in my shame. You see, shame is a spur to correct behaviour. It’s a trigger to change the heart. It’s not a place we should stay. Because I am aware of my sin, I feel shame. That shame is a spur for me to breathe life into my faith with deeds – deeds of gratitude and obedience to the one who saved me, the one who gave everything for me.

The shame leads me to a gratitude deeper than an ocean. He did this for me – for all of us – while we were still sinners. While we didn’t know him, while we ignored him, while we held him on the cross with our sins. The expanse of God’s mercy is breathtaking.

And Jesus, our saviour, our shepherd, our treasure. So human. So divine. It’s unfathomable. And yet we can see these little glimpses in the gospels of the state of his heart, which in turn helps us to understand the glory of his divinity.

Read the gospels again. Read the crucifixion accounts. Hear his words. Feel his pain. And remember his glory. Because God’s actions are about the glory, not about the shame. Let your shame take you to gratitude, and as we celebrate this Easter, let us bow down and worship at his feet, because he deserves everything we have.

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34

1 plant, 12 mentions and the astonishing truth it reveals

We read the Bible for study and we read the Bible for familiarity. The former is good and necessary and brings us together with others. The latter is also necessary because it increases our theological muscle memory. And why is that important? Apart from keeping us close to God and anchoring us in His way, it helps us see things we never saw before.

You know how it works. You’re reading the Bible one day and something pulls you up short. I don’t remember reading that before, you think. What is that? What does that mean? Sometimes just reading the Bible for familiarity reveals little things that take us closer to Him. And it drives you deeper.

I was reading Psalm 51. This is David’s psalm confessing his guilt after his association (coughs awkwardly) with Bathsheba and murder of her husband. He begs God for mercy and says “I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.” (v3). Then he says in verse 7:

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

Cleanse me with what? I must have glossed over that before – there’s a whole bunch of things you read without really thinking about it that are random ancient near east bits and bobs – ephods, seahs, ephahs…..whatever.

Hyssop is a plant that looks a bit like lavender.

Image result for hyssop

(Source: https://www.herbrally.com/monographs/hyssop)

It is mentioned only 12 times in the whole Bible:

  • 5 times in Leviticus and 2 times in Numbers in relation to rites for cleansing
  • 1 time in 1 Kings 4 in a list of things Solomon spoke of in his wisdom
  • 1 time in Hebrews 9:19 in a description of Moses in a rite of cleansing the people
  • 1 time in Psalms 51 as we saw above
  • 1 time in Exodus 12
  • 1 time in John 19.

Its these last two mentions that are absolutely startling.

In Exodus 12:22 God tells Moses to instruct the people to “Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. None of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning.

This is the first mention of hyssop in the Bible and it is tied to one of the most momentous occasions in the whole narrative. The Passover was the night of the last plague of Egypt. It was the night that God would take the first born from every family, unless the sign of blood was made across the doorposts. In this case, God’s angel would pass over that house and the inhabitants would be safe. As part of this night, each family was to prepare their Passover lamb – slaughtered, cooked and consumed in a manner set out by God in a sign of obedience. And with the sign painted across the door with hyssop, the Israelites would be safe, before God leads them out of Egypt to the promised land.

The only other place that that hyssop is mentioned in the Bible is in John 19:28-30 – “After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth.  When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

The mention of this little plant at this scene is striking. It’s out of place. It jars. Hyssop of course was used by the Romans as an antiseptic and as a plant it grew all over the place out of walls. It’s not that that makes it’s presence odd. It’s use is odd because it’s quite a stumpy plant without much of a stalk to hold a sponge on, let alone one weighed down with wine. The other reason it’s odd is that in a relatively short narrative of the crucifixion, the details recalled are those that have a real point to make. For example, John recalls the soldiers casting lots for his clothes (which was foretold in Psalm 22) and declaring his thirst (which takes us to Psalm 69) among others. So the mention of hyssop is profound. What is it saying? What is it pointing us to look at?

Its previous use had been forgiveness (Psalm 51) and cleansing (Psalm 1 as well as Leviticus and Numbers) and salvation (Exodus).

Forgiveness, cleansing from sin and salvation. Three things which are encapsulated in the cross.

Furthermore, it links the cross directly with the Passover. He is our Passover lamb whose blood averts the death that we deserve before God leads us to His promised land.

This is not allegory and its not code. Its a deliberate and specific reference recalled by John to allow us to see the deeper meaning in the surface events occurring at a point in time. But instead of a single occurrence of a man executed on the cross, we see the single point in time where the whole universe is joined together. Everything leads to, and leads from, the cross. That little plant draws us from the cross, to the Passover and the Exodus and back to the cross and to what God’s ultimate plans are.

We have been forgiven. We have been cleansed, and we have been saved.

That little plant reminds us of so much. And it points to so much depth in that terrible torturous but glorious event.

As you read your Bible, look out for these little mentions. Read and read your Bible and read it again. Only proximity to God’s word will highlight these moments – but it’s in these moments that the depth of God’s work is seen in all its intricate, beautiful and wondrous detail.

Comfort in pain and the reality of Joseph’s experience (Genesis 37-50)

Joseph is a cracker of a story isn’t it? He’s young and exciting, he has dreams, he’s God’s chosen – he even has a fancy coat and a musical. So even in popular cultural people know bits and bobs about him.

Image result for joseph and his amazing technicolour dreamcoat

As Christians, we might know a bit more. We might understand the context of his story in the broader arc of the whole Bible. We also tend to zero in on Genesis 50:20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

This is the pinnacle of the whole story. Focus too far in and you would miss what God is doing. Joseph had the ability to step back and see the broader picture of what had been happening.

However, keep the focus too far out and we might miss the beauty in the detail. The beauty is in the picture of two men – father and son – and their deeply emotional expressions. In seeing their raw and honest emotions, there is profound teaching for all of us.

So lets trace Joseph’s story very quickly:

  • We meet Joseph aged 17 in Genesis 37:2 and he has 10 older brothers. He’s precocious and kind of a jerk – he brings his father Jacob a bad report about his brothers and when he has dreams suggesting that his brothers will all bow down to him, he tells them (which is the worst thing a younger brother can do!). Jacob doesn’t help and shows his favoritism by getting him a fancy coat.
  • At this age, or some time after, the brothers decide to kill him (37:20) but his brother Reuben intercedes. They are going to throw him in a cistern but decide at the last minute to sell him as a slave.
  • Joseph is sold as a slave to Egyptian official Potipher and the Lord was with him (39:2). But Potipher’s wife fancies him. When he refuses her, she accuses him of attacking her and Joseph is thrown in jail.
  • In jail, God is with him again (39:21). While there, he interprets 2 people’s dreams and his predictions come to pass, but it is another 2 years before he gets out and goes into the service of the Pharoah after correctly interpreting his dreams.
  • Genesis 41:46 says Joseph is 30 years old when he enters Pharoahs service and after this, there are 7 years of abundance. Two years into the 7 years of famine, Joseph’s brothers and Jacob intersect with him again – so as the story comes full circle, Joseph is 39 years old.

So Joseph suffers for 13 years before he is released from prison, and 22 years before he is reconciled with his family. We tend to think abut Joseph’s suffering in terms of the “God was with him” bit. I don’t know about you, but when I have been in a difficult place, it is has been possible to see that God is with me, and it is a comfort, but it doesn’t make the circumstances easier to bear in the immediacy and logistics of the situation. If we have a death in the family, or loss of a job, a serious medical issue or a crumbling relationship, we know that God is there and it comforts us – but we still worry and we still mourn and we still feel the pain or the situation.

So lets re-think this a little because there are several clues in the text as to what Joseph really thought and how he felt.

In his late teens, Joseph is facing his own brothers who are going to kill him, or throw him into a cistern in the middle of the desert. Cisterns were wells for capturing water. They were usually dug out of rock and were about 15-20 feet deep.

Ancient Cistern

Ancient cistern. Source: https://www.bible-history.com/biblestudy/cisterns.html

This prospect alone would be terrifying and in 42:21 we see what happened that night. When Joseph, as Pharoah’s administrator, toys with his brothers (who don’t recognise him), the brothers say to one another “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.”

How distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life. Its a chilling picture. Joseph was terrified. He was just a scared boy.

The same night he is ripped from his family and sold into slavery. We have seen enough photos from around the world of people torn from their homes to begin to understand what he must have been feeling – confusion, fear, panic, loss. Deep down, he may just have wanted his mum.

But he survives. And he loses his young precociousness. In the house of Potipher, it turns out he, with God’s gifts, is a great manager and administrator. But then he is pursued and falsely accused. The injustice must have been a horrific burden. And then again, the fear of not knowing what will happen – rape was punishable by death or castration in ancient Egypt. But he is imprisoned.

Even though God was with him in prison, Joseph was still a prisoner in what must have been dark, crowded and disgusting surroundings. And he was there around 10 years. He endured for 10 years. It’s interesting that when it says “the Lord was with him” it doesn’t say that Joseph bore up well, or that he was content in heart. He was apparently steadfast and trustworthy enough to have been put in charge by the prison warden. But we don’t know how his heart was affected by his experiences there.

Then when Joseph comes face to face with his brothers, his emotions overcome him. He is the most important man in all of Egypt. He is a father and husband. He has saved countless lives through his management of the abundant and famine years. But when he first sees them, he engineers things so that one brother remains and is put in prison (42:19), just as he had been. Then he plants silver in their bags so they must live with the fear of false accusation – just as he had been (42:25-28). They are also to bring the last brother back to him, as what? As a slave? Possibly. But here we see Joseph in a tumble of ragged emotions and knee jerk responses. All the while, dealing with deep and bitter anger and frustration and who knows what else that had been building up in him for over a decade:

  • He (Joseph) turned away from them and began to weep (42:24)
  • Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there (43:30)
  • Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it. (45:1-2)

This is where his life of anguish ends as he is reconciled with his family – but the anguish never leaves. We know this from our own bitter experience unfortunately. We may overcome. We may even triumph. But the experience shapes us. What we can say is that God was and is with us, and when the grief subsides, we can see the broadest arc of what He was doing in our lives.

And how about Jacob? My son will not go down there with you; his brother is dead and he is the only one left.” (42:38) This single line holds such passionate despair and fear. But what is Benjamin the only one of? The only other son of Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife. Benjamin was the last piece of her that he had.

Both sons had been favoured by Jacob because he loved her so much. Jacob had been tricked by his father in law into marrying Leah and allowed himself to be enslaved and abused for the sake of marrying Rachel, such was his love for her (Genesis 29:18). She died in childbirth with Benjamin and so after the loss Joseph, Benjamin was Jacob’s only link with his departed wife. As hard as that must have been for his other children, we can understand the depth of his longing.

All these years he had grieved and now here Joseph was. Yes, a triumph. Yes, God’s plan. But there is such tragic beauty in the detail. We see strong men expressing their deepest emotions. God did not erase their pain, but He was with them.

The emotions are clear and honest. These emotions are God-given. And this story of Joseph is not the only place that we see God helping and guiding us in them. We see in Psalms, God gives us words to speak to Him in our anguish – we should use them. All of us will face circumstances that we think could break us. It is part of our human experience. But God did not leave us empty handed. We see in Joseph’s story a man remaining steadfast while experiencing all the most natural, honest and raw emotions. And Psalms shows us what we can say when the pain is so deep there are no words. We should not shy away from these.

Women can be good at this but this helps us to have shape to our emotional processing.

Men have not had a history or a culture of being able to do this. So for men, this might be liberating.

Don’t forget, if you find the rawness of these circumstances and emotions scary, let us remember that Jesus showed us the same. He showed us anger (Matthew 16:21-23), he showed us sadness (John 11:32-35), he showed us fear (Mark 14:35-36).

Look to Jesus and the humanity he displayed in all its realness. Take heart from Joseph and Jacob. Read the story. Read them as real people, just like you are. Read Psalm 69 or 86 – see how God helps us to cry out the words to Him when we might not even have them ourselves.

There is beauty in the detail when it is pointed God-ward. We don’t revel in in our negative feelings, but we can embrace the emotions that God gave us to process the pain. Only then can we step backwards and see the greater arc in what God is doing in our lives.

“I believe! Help my unbelief!” The struggle I have between God and me (Mark 9:14-29)

At church yesterday we recited the Apostle’s Creed. It’s a statement of belief and I love hearing the voices of the congregation together as one voice saying this. I believe these things. So why then do I struggle with faith sometimes?

I believe that God is the creator of heaven and earth, and yet I struggle to have faith in the possible outcomes of his infinite power – for the job I need, for the child to heal, for an authority to act kindly, for the relationship to mend. If I believe in all these things, why don’t I have enough faith in the other?

Image result for apostles creed

Maybe this is you too. And maybe you feel like sometimes its not so much that you don’t have faith in God, so much as not having faith in yourself – “Why would God listen to my prayers?” or “What could my prayers possibly do?”

Perhaps its because we know that God’s plans don’t always reflect what we’ve prayed for. The relationship doesn’t mend. The loved one doesn’t make it. The job disappears. So it makes us reluctant to express faith in God’s outcomes because we don’t necessarily understand them. We pray “if its your will, Lord….” as if to give him (and us) and “out” if it doesn’t pan out the way we hope.

Nothing says this more clearly than the man in Mark 9:14-29. A father has brought his son to see Jesus to be healed. The disciples had been unable to heal the boy. When Jesus arrives, the man says to Jesus “if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” (Mark 9:22).

This to me, feels like the “If it is your will, Lord” prayer. We don’t want to presume (isn’t it arrogance to demand a result?). We’ve been disappointed before.

The man is quite sharply rebuked by Jesus: ‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” (v23)

This is challenging. Is he saying that if you have enough faith we can do anything? Does that mean if we can’t do it, we don’t have enough faith? If we pray to heal our disease, and I still have it, does that mean I don’t have enough faith? No. That puts too much power on us as the individuals. And it brings in a high level of uncertainty to something that is already certain – that Jesus is enough.

If I start thinking “if I’m not healed is it because I don’t have enough faith”, then I also start thinking, “how do I know if I have enough faith? Does that mean I’m not saved if my faith isn’t strong enough?” This would be a shockingly cruel burden to place on someone.

BUT if we have faith in God, everything is possible. This is what we focus on. We must pray knowing that everything is possible. We must have confidence. We must be expectant. God can. And sometimes he does, and sometimes he doesn’t. Not because he is capricious and random, but because he has a bigger plan. So just as we pray knowing that he can, we must accept the outcome in equal faith because we know there is a bigger plan. If we achieve the former (praying expectantly), we can have a tendency to feel blindsided – but I believed. Yes. But keep believing. Because we can have confidence in the bigger plan. Praying expectantly and then feeling blindsided means our faith was  in our own prayer – and we are disappointed that it didn’t work out. If we truly have faith in God, we will pray knowing he can, and accept whether he does or doesn’t.

The man replies to Jesus “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (v24). I so get this! I believe! But my faith wafts about depending on how confident I feel. I know its not supposed to be about how I feel, but in how sovereign I know God is – but I’m human.

Its also because there is a key difference between faith and belief.

Put it this way, I can believe that I would probably survive a car crash if I got into one – but I wouldn’t have faith in it. I wouldn’t drive having faith in that belief.

We can believe the Apostle’s creed, but often we don’t live as though we have faith in it. Having faith requires a complete trust that if you closed your eyes and fell backwards, that someone will catch you. And that’s not a state we attain and then stay in – that can be affected by how we slept, how our day is going, how our circumstances are. So we need to re-calibrate every day.

We need to pray to God to help our unbelief!

We should read the Apostle’s Creed. And we should believe it. And then we must live as though we have faith in it. How do we live in this faith? Knowing that God can do anything and everything. We can’t. The faith is not in ourselves. Our faith is in God. And if we ask, we should ask confidently, because everything is possible for those that have faith in him. That doesn’t mean everything will happen. It means that if we have faith in him, we have access to all the things that God can do in his infinite power. So everything is possible.

Pray knowing everything is possible. Live knowing we have access to this power.

 

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here: Studies in the Gospel of Mark

If God is real, why hasn’t he shown himself? (Mark 9:1-13)

This is an enduring question – for both Christians and non-Christians. For Christians, this can be a question spoken in pain and grief as we seek God’s presence among our trauma. For non-Christians this can be a logical question – if he is real, why doesn’t he just show himself and then we can dispense with all the doubt?

The thing is though, he did show himself. I mean, God was actually with his people in the wilderness and they still grumbled and complained. In that sense, how much evidence is enough? I get that non-believers dismiss the evidence of the Bible. It’s not an unbiased view. But it is the view of the people who believe they saw God. So I understand that people wouldn’t believe unless they themselves had been the witness, but we must allow for the validity of other people’s own experience. We believe things people tell us without witnessing it ourselves all the time. A friend of mine told me about a terrible week she’d had. I believe her, even though I wasn’t a fly on the wall.

Of course, I’m not saying that we should believe everything blindly. That would be unwise. If a biased media tells us something, we should question. If a corrupt authority tells us something, we should fact check. But in checking these things out for ourselves, we must allow for the possibility that its true. We are a very cynical generation. We tend to jump to a conclusion of falsehood almost as a faith position. If we hear something from [insert political leader’s name of your choice here] we may believe or disbelieve them on principle – because we have faith in our position. Its something we believe without any particular evidence either way.

In the same way, some people believe what is in the Bible because it is the eye witness testimony of people who were there. Others won’t believe even if God was travelling with them in the wilderness. That’s to be expected – it’s been the case for thousands of years.

What we see in Mark’s gospel in Chapter 9 is a famous episode called “The Transfiguration”. It’s where Jesus is transformed:

There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. (Mark 9:2-4). In Luke, this is expanded to “as he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.” (Luke 9:29) and in Matthew’s gospel he says “There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” (Matthew 17:2).

On first reading this episode sounds like Jesus and Elijah and Moses are having a bit of a group meeting before the move towards Jerusalem and the cross. Perhaps they’re chatting about how things are going or if everything is going according to plan.

Don’t believe it. Nothing here is by accident. The transformation is deliberate. It is a deeply profound episode because people needed to understand three things:

  1. Jesus was not just a man but something else as well. The transformation to this shining being shows the supernatural nature of his humanity.
  2. People needed to see more clearly who he was and who he wasn’t. If he is in the presence of Elijah and Moses here, then he is neither of those people. We have seen in previous passages that there was much conjecture over Jesus’s identity. This shows us clearly that he is someone and something else.
  3. Jesus is in the presence of God. The references to Jesus’ face shining is a reference to Moses’ radiance after his meetings with God (cf. Exodus 34:29-35). Jesus is speaking to God, in person.

Just after this short episode, “Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7). God himself! And this takes us back to Mark 1:11 where God, during Jesus’ baptism had said “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Why repeat this? Because something new is happening. He spoke these words at the baptism as Jesus’ ministry began. He speaks the words here as we begin the journey to Jerusalem. And the witness is to Peter, James and John who are with Jesus at this episode. Something special is being disclosed to these three.

But Jesus tells them not to say anything until after he has died and risen again. They don’t really understand so instead ask Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” (Mark 9:11). This might seem random but Elijah had been mentioned in Malachi’s prophecies. Malachi had said that God “will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” (Malachi 4:5). And if they had just seen Elijah…..what did that mean…..?

Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.” (Mark 9:12-13)

This passage is difficult, but can be simply put as the restoration predicted as coming from Elijah’s return will be achieved via the suffering of the Son of Man. The reason it is difficult it because Peter and the rest of the Jews were expecting “restoration” to mean something awesome and celebratory and politically liberating. The truth is much harder to swallow.

So not only did God the Father show himself in this passage, we see God the Son here too. God, with Peter – poor dim-witted Peter and the disciples who could not possibly understand what everything meant until they had seen the cross and the resurrection. But blessed Peter who tried and failed and tried again and followed faithfully. God in person with Peter – and Mark writing Peter’s eye witness account.

God was there. He did show himself.

Do we believe blindly? Partially I suppose. I wasn’t there. But there is enough evidence within the gospel as a historical document to show that it is an eye witness account and not a fable or a story. And there is enough evidence of the resurrection to make me stop and look at what happened in the lead up to it. You see, after the resurrection, hundreds of believers were persecuted, exiled, tortured and executed in the most horrific ways – and not a single one said that their accounts weren’t true. If this wasn’t true, I just don’t believe that so many would suffer for the sake of a lie. And these were eye witnesses – not later converts who died for faith. These were followers of Jesus dying over their very memories.

So I believe that God showed himself to Peter and the others. I believe that God walked the earth with his disciples. I believe that he went to the cross for me. I believe that he rose again and now reigns in heaven and walks with me every day.

And while non-believers are still looking for proof, I am content that there is enough evidence to base my faith on. On days when I am seeking his face in my circumstances, I don’t have to go far to remember that God is with us.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here: Studies in the Gospel of Mark

 

The choice that affects your life here and your eternity. I know what I choose. (Mark 8:27-9:1)

There comes a crossroads in all stories. In real life, they happen all the time – points where we make decisions that change the course of the rest of our lives. This could be a new job, a new relationship, a new house or a new course of study. It could even be a new mind set or making a resolution to do things differently.

Each choice is a change. Some are small. Some are seismic.

The point we reach in Mark 8:27-9:1 is earth shattering. Up to now, Jesus’ identity has been a key theme. Who is he? And what is his mission? Here, is where Jesus begins to reveal the full weight of both those questions.

He asks Peter, “Who do people say I am?” It’s clear there are a variety of opinions. Jesus is only interested in one. “Who do you say I am?” Peter does not hesitate. “You are the Christ” he says. The answer seems to satisfy Jesus – for the moment.

Because it’s only half the story. But half the story is all they can cope with for now. The “Christ” or “Messiah” means merely “anointed”. The people were expecting someone who was anointed by God to come and do his work and save his people. They weren’t expecting the Messiah to also be God’s son, to be God himself. And they weren’t expecting what he had come to do.

So understanding that he was the Christ was a start. But it was not all. So Jesus now begins to teach them that he is here to die. 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. (Mark 8:31)

Here is the hinge moment. Jesus has not yet divulged this to his disciples. But now they know he is Christ, it is time to begin to teach them the rest. He is Christ and Lord – and lamb.

This simple death prediction takes us to Isaiah 52:13-53:12 which, for the people at the time, was truly earth shattering. Never before, had the Messiah, the new king David, been associated with the suffering servant. This would take some time to digest. What does it mean? How is this person – this Jesus – to take the iniquities of all? There must have been so many questions. How is this supposed to work?

Which is why Jesus “began” to teach them and predicts his death another two times in this gospel. This is such big information, it will take time for it to sink in, and not be fully understood until after the fact.

But Jesus’ pending death isn’t the only death. It’s us too.

When Jesus rebukes Peter he calls him Satan “because you are not thinking about God’s concerns but about merely human ones!” (Mark 8:33) What are these human concerns? We should know. They preoccupy us even now. For clarity, let’s look at the next bit:

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? 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.” (8:34-38)

Everything in this speech is anchored in change. We must change our direction. We must change our mind. We must change the way we think. We must change how we look at things.

Our human concerns are:

  • Not denying ourselves (wanting what we want without hinderance)
  • Gaining the world (money, things, holidays…..)
  • Shame of the gospel (of standing out for something unpopular)
  • “Adultery” (ie not being faithful to God but faithful to ourselves and what we want)
  • Sinful (insert your personal sins here…..)

This is not just following a groovy teacher. This is following our Lord. This is treasuring what he says so deeply that we would change our lives. That we would consider God first in all things before we make choices based on our own will.

I like to think I’m an OK Christian, but I look at that list and I know I still think of myself first before Him. It’s my default position.

So I need to look again at what Jesus is teaching me. We slip into Christian laziness so quickly and so easily. I need to practice my focus on God first. It’s not easy, but I need to practice – because with practice we always get better at things.

And the reward! Even though Jesus makes clear that there is a cost to following him, the reward is glory in heaven. Even though we must choose death of our sins (our most comfortable and pleasant idolatries) we gain the world. We gain him.

He says himself that those who are ashamed of him in this world, he will be ashamed of as we stand before the throne. The opposite must also hold true – those who love and exalt him in this world, he will love and exalt before God as we stand before the throne.

I know which one I choose.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here: Studies in the Gospel of Mark

I am the most unlikely Christian. But aren’t we all? Mark 8:22-26)

I became a Christian 12 years ago. I was completely fine at the time. By that I mean I had no need of religion. I had a great life and a great job with lots of prospects. I had no real responsibilities, I didn’t have to worry too much what the price tags said, I could go on holiday whenever I wanted and spent most weekends out for brunch, lunch and dinner.

When I met Jesus though, it was like someone had switched a light on and I didn’t realise until that moment that I’d been stumbling about in the dark.

For me, it was a two-stage conversion. A friend of mine who had a similar experience says that she was “a Christian before she became a Christian”. I became a Christian in my head first and about a year later, in my heart as well.

I became a believer because the more I learned, the more I realised it was more probably true than not. When I learned the evidence around the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I became a Christian. The evidence was too compelling for it to not be true. And if that was true, well….the only thing you can do is give your life to Jesus.

About a year later, I was at a large conference and with hundreds of women’s voices raised in song, I suddenly got it. What had happened in my head the year before, suddenly happened in my heart too. I got it. I suddenly understood the very depth of my sin and therefore the extent of gratitude I owed to God.

Both stages were life changing. Both stages felt like a progressive healing of what had been complete blindness.

There is a man in Mark 8:22-26 who’s experience resonates deeply with me. It’s a short story, but profound.

They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”

He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”

Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.”

In the first stage, he begins to see – there’s light and colour and shape but it’s still indistinct. With the second stage, he sees clearly. And his life is changed.

But there is more to be said here that resonates with me. I am blessed with full sight, but I can imagine that someone with impaired vision would need to trust someone deeply to allow them to lead them, especially as far away as somewhere outside the village. Jesus was someone to be trusted. And he must have proved his trustworthiness in how he led the man – gently but sure footed, reaching their destination safely.

This is something I remember. Becoming a Christian and not knowing what on earth I was supposed to do, but just trusting Jesus and allowing him to lead me as though I was a child. And that sense of seeing, but seeing things indistinctly until things started coming into focus.

I look back now and wonder that I ever became a Christian. I had no history with the church. I didn’t grow up knowing anyone who went to church. And like I said, as a grown up, life was peachy. I was the most unlikely person to become a Christian.

But really, aren’t we all? Only an encounter with Jesus brings us to the truth. Without him none of us would be Christians.

And look how far we’ve come. I look back sometimes and my only regret is that I didn’t become a Christian sooner. But just like the blind man, the stage was set for an encounter with Jesus and it happened when it was supposed to happen. So the timing cannot be regretted.

Look back at your own story. We have so much further to go – growing in Christlikeness is a life long pursuit for us. And even if you think you’re not “nailing it” right now and that your life is messy, that’s ok. Because life is always messy. But look back and see how far you’ve come. And look forward with a renewed sense of hope because we will make more progress in the months and years to come.

Just remember that we were blind, but now we see. And Jesus leads us tenderly, gently. He changed our lives. He has changed our eternity. And while we are still here on earth, we will grow in him. Because all of us are unlikely Christians, and none of us are able to do this without him.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here: Studies in the Gospel of Mark

Sometimes the disciples remind me of my kids when they’re being really annoying (Mark 8:11-21)

As a mum, there are several things that can get really annoying.

The first is when me and my kids have had a great day filled with lots of treats – a breaky out, ice cream at the park and a trip to the cinema. And then, after lavishing my hard earned dollars on having a really special day, there begins the incessant whining about the one thing that they don’t have. A gum ball or a pack of stickers or a $700 gaming console – it doesn’t matter what it is, and it doesn’t seem to matter about all the other amazing things we just did and had – now we want that thing.

The second thing is when they start arguing with each other in that “I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you!!” kind of way. It grates in the nerves. It’s like nails down a blackboard. You know you’re going to have to step in like the UN to make peace and there’ll be no “peace keeping” other than separating them and making them be quiet.

The third thing is when they ask you a question, you answer them and they say “yes, but how do you know” a million times as you keep explaining the same thing. For example, “Mummy, do dinosaurs still live on earth.” “No honey, the dinosaurs died out a long time ago.” “How do you know.” “Because I do.” “Yes, but how do you know?” “Because scientists have found their bones and they are millions of years old and nobody has seen a dinosaur since.” “Yes but how can you be sure.” Etc etc until you feel like you could literally die of the whole conversation.

WELL, this passage in Mark (8:11-21) reminds of all three of these.

In our previous passage (you can read it here), Jesus had performed yet another miracle. And yet here we are, again, with the Pharisees asking for a sign.

To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.”

This feels just like the dinosaur scenario. “Are you the Messiah?” “Yes” “But how do you know?” “Because I know who I am and I’ve been doing miracles for a while now.” “Yes but can you show us another one so we can be double triple sure?”

What they want is authentication. This is more than a miracle, they want some kind of sign of divine intervention since even false prophets can do miracles (see for example Deuteronomy 13:1-2). However, God isn’t a performing monkey and while sometimes he grants the request, generally people asking for that kind of sign get a pretty big slap down (like the devil when Jesus was tempted in the desert).

Why? Wouldn’t it be easier to just show people? I think there are several reasons. But one of them is that at some point, you just have to display faith. Faith is built intellectually on various proofs but the final step is allowing yourself to fall and trusting that a God will catch you. A relationship with God cannot be built on forever providing authentication – it would never end. And that, I think is the other reason. These people have seen Jesus’ signs and wonders. They have heard his teaching. They have experienced him face to face. They know the prophecies. And yet they do not or will not believe. If they will not believe on the basis of what they’ve already seen, will there be anything that convinces them? In Luke 16:31 Jesus says If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.

In this way, Jesus isn’t just the son of God, God incarnate, he is a also a prophet and watchman – he has told them what is happening. He has warned them. He has shown them that the kingdom is near and they must repent. Now they must believe the good news and accept the salvation that is being offered.

The disciples are not much better at this point frankly. They are in the boat after the feeding of the 4,000 and only brought one loaf. They start arguing.

Jesus, never one to miss a teaching opportunity, says Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod (Mark 8:15). Very deep. Very profound. He is warning them. Yeast is the thing that makes the whole dough rise. A very little bit effects the whole batch. It doesn’t take much to be contaminated. They need to beware.

And what do the disciples say? Thank you, Lord? Good pick up, saviour? Cheers for the tip, Messiah? No. They argue about not having bread.

Not just totally ignoring him, but also arguing about the most trivial thing. This is so reminiscent of being grabby after a day of treats and the “I’m not touching you” arguments! Jesus has done this amazing thing and has tried to impart his wisdom, and all they can do is squabble because they’re hungry-angry.

Jesus asks them if their hearts are hard. Have they seen but not seen? Do they have ears but are not hearing? They are just like the Pharisees.

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? (Mark 8:17-18)

Jesus reminds them what he just did and then says “Do you not yet understand?” (Verse 21).

This ends the scene. We don’t know what their reaction is – if any.

It could be that the disciples were like my kids. In the face of a question like that, my kids just look at me. They would exchange glances like “just say yes so we won’t get into trouble” – “Yes Mum, of course we understand” even though they blatantly don’t. They’ll just say anything to make the conversation stop.

It could be another great literary device that Mark is using. When he ends the conversation here, he is inviting the reader to answer the question for them. At this point, the reader – whether now or 1900 years ago – is screaming at the book “Oh come on!!! How much evidence do you need??? How are you squabbling when he is right there!!!”

And that is the point of this whole gospel. Mark wants his readers to read themselves into this narrative. He is telling a story faithfully, but he’s doing it in a way that draws the reader in, engages them in the story, compels them to feel the frustration, but also feel confident in the truth that the Pharisees and the disciples should be seeing so clearly.

This gospel was written for us. It transcends the ages. Jesus spoke words of truth. He performed mighty signs. He demonstrated his knowledge of God’s plans and purposes – and then he died for us. And when he rose from the dead (with enough evidence around the event to allow us intellectually to believe it is probable rather than possible) we can fall, knowing he is there. We can trust. We can take that step of faith.

We are the Pharisees sometimes. And when times are tough, which they are and will be again, we will ask for signs and authentication that God is there. We will seek worldly certainty when we should just seek Him. Because we can be certain in Him.

We are all the disciples sometimes too. We have ears and eyes but we don’t see or hear properly. We get distracted. We get the spiritual version of hungry-angry. We need to be corrected. We need Jesus to remind us again – do we not yet understand?

Being the Pharisees and the disciples is kind of like us being like my kids, except to God. We squabble. We fight. We keep asking and asking and asking – without stopping to simply have faith.

Remember. Understand. Be certain in Him. Let yourself fall again – because he is there to catch you.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here: Studies in the Gospel of Mark