[May 31]--Clean and Unclean

Mark 7:1-13

If you’ve been paying attention to these lessons from Mark, you might have noticed a pattern emerging. This Gospel seems to be focused on Jesus’ confrontations with the official interpretation of God’s law. We mentioned before that chapters 2 and 3 have five different conflicts which he had with the religious leaders. This is another one, and it touches on an area that we need to understand.

First, we need to remember that this Gospel was written mainly to Gentiles who had to be taught the reasoning behind some of the Jewish customs. But there’s something you need to know which Mark doesn’t mention. We tend to foist upon the N. T. our modern comprehension of the world. We’re told that we need to wash our hands on a regular basis. Why? Because of hygiene. There are germs which we pick up, and the washing kills them. If we don’t wash, it’ll affect our health in a bad way.

But that wasn’t why the Pharisees believed in washing hands. They had no concept of germ theory, anyway. The reason why they washed was to symbolize something, namely their separation from the world. The world was sinful and “unclean” (in a moral sense), and they wanted no part of that. So they washed their hands to rid themselves of the moral filth that they might've “picked up.”

This was a based on an O.T. understanding of life. Remember, the main motif of the O.T. was separation: Separation of the common people from God, of clean from unclean foods, of common days from holy days, of clean from unclean people, etc. In a way, it was the “quarantine” method of righteousness. Evil was kept “over there” as much as possible.

But then Jesus came along, and a whole new paradigm was in place. He touched a leper, and instead of becoming unclean himself, his “cleanness” spread to the leper. Same thing with the woman who constantly bled.

But the Pharisees were so caught up in their way of doing things that they were trapped in legalism. What’s legalism? There are lots of definitions out there, some more helpful than others. But I have one, or at least a way to recognize it, and it’s based on Jesus’ accusation from this passage. Here it is—It’s being concerned about things that God doesn’t care about and not being concerned about things that he does care about. See, legalism is not concern about obeying God’s law. The Lord has given us instructions, and he didn’t give them just because he likes hearing himself talk. If you want to obey him and study his instructions in order to do so, that’s not legalism.

But notice the contrast here in Christ’s indictment. Washing of the hands for a symbolic cleansing---God doesn’t care about that. Taking care of your parents when they’re in need—very high on God’s priority list. And how do we tell which is which? Well, what standard does Christ present? Simple enough test: What has he made explicit in his word?

And it’s a pattern you’ll see over and over with legalism. People care about things that God doesn’t care about, and eventually it’ll crowd out the things that actually hold his interest. Part of the reason, quite frankly, is laziness. You see, legalism is at the same time both A) a crushing burden and B) an easy way out. To ritually wash your hands before a meal is no burden at all compared to taking care of your parents when they’re too old to provide for themselves.

But before we point the finger at those nasty Pharisees, we might take a moment for self-reflection. I know that America is about as far away from legalism (in the traditional sense) as you can get. If anything, we’re in far greater danger from antinomianism than from legalism. But the root error is still the same: We care about things that God doesn’t care about and don’t pay any attention to what’s really on his heart. What does he really want me to do? How can I change my priority list to reflect his? I think you know that answer to that, don’t you?

Father God, I want my heart to be an echo of yours. I want to care about what you care about. I want to love what you love and hate what you hate. Please.

[May 30]--I Am Legion

Mark 5:1-20

I try to be exposed to points of view other than my own, especially non-Christian ones. I can tell you this—The primary issue that produces derision and mockery is sex. Try to explain to a non-believer why you don’t believe in sex before marriage or in pornography, and you might as well start speaking Mandarin Chinese for all that they comprehend. But another thing that really sends skeptics into a tizzy is a belief in the spiritual realm. They might believe in God, and some of the rules found in the Bible are common sense to them. But if you tell them that you actually believe that there are such creatures as angels and demons, and that they have an effect on the physical world, you sound like a primitive witch doctor who’s sticking pins in a doll.

But the same Bible that tells us that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose again also tells us that there are spiritual entities which affect the world, and they didn’t just go away 2,000 years ago.

However, I try to keep a proper balance between extremes. I don’t attach blame for everything bad that happens to direct demonic influence. I also think that a lot of people in the “Spiritual Warfare” movement effectively relieve Christians of their responsibility to live a holy life by doing just that. If you read the N.T., however, you’ll notice that as far as practical instruction goes, Paul and the other writers spend a whole lot more time focusing on dealing with personal sin and very little time on “spiritual warfare” issues. Based on this emphasis, I’ve come to the conclusion that the greatest hindrance to my spiritual growth and obedience to Christ is not Satan or some demon. It’s me.

So keeping that in mind, let’s examine this story and see what we can pull from it. Jesus encountered a poor man who was in just about as wretched a condition as you can imagine. He lived among the tombs, cutting himself and howling at night like some wild animal.

Right off the bat, before we get out of his background, I see a lesson for us. The locals’ solution was to try to chain him down. But this was their mistake: Trying to solve a spiritual problem with a physical solution. If a doctor misdiagnoses your illness, he can’t cure it. If there’s a spiritual problem, you have to attack it spiritually.

Can I be completely blunt here? Can I be brutally honest? This society, because it discounts the fact that we’re spiritual beings, immediately attacks any emotional or mental difficulty with drugs. Are there times in which that’s appropriate? I wouldn’t say never, but I would say it’s a lot rarer than some professionals would claim. Again, I need to clarify. Obviously most psychological problems are not due to demonic possession. But I'd also submit that most (almost all) problems of an emotional or psychological imbalance are because of a spiritual issue of some type.

I would also apply that to a lot of social problems like crime. No, I wouldn’t empty out the prisons. But if we attack a spiritual problem with only physical solutions, we’re never going to make any real progress.

So the man falls down before Jesus, again displaying insight into the identity of the Master which most humans lacked. Jesus cast him out of the poor man. I’d also like to point out the preferences of demons: They exist only to destroy that which God has created. If they aren’t allowed to destroy a man, they’ll destroy pigs.

So the man is cured, and what’s the reaction of the town locals? “Now our children are safe. We can walk outside at night without worrying about being attacked.” “Wow, I’m really amazed to see this poor man’s life restored to him.” No. It seems that their primary concern was the financial loss of some pigs. Caring about money more than people—sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

I’d go over the applications again, but I’d just be beating a dead horse. Whatever the Spirit’s trying to tell you, listen.

Lord Jesus, I praise you because all authority in the seen and unseen realms are under your feet. The demons tremble at the mention of your name. But I thank you that this spiritual victory of yours is also mine. As long as I’m doing things your way, I have nothing to fear.

[May 29]--The Wind And The Waves

Mark 4:35-41

I might have mentioned this is in passing before, but it’s relevant to our discussion today. Mark’s Gospel, more so than any of the other three, emphasizes the (superficial) popularity of Jesus. Once word got out about his healings and the confrontations he had with the religious leaders, people came from miles around to see him. This got to the point that his ministry was actually hindered. There were days in which, from sunup to sundown, every moment was taken up with serving people: healing, teaching, preaching, etc.

And after a full day like this, Christ told his disciples that they were going to the other side of the Sea of Galilee for a rest. If I’m telling you something you know already, then I apologize—The Sea of Galilee is famous for violent storms which can swoop in with little or no warning.

I’d also like to remind you that many in this crew were experienced fisherman who'd undoubtedly seen a lot of fearsome storms. But this one apparently was bad enough to have them screaming in terror.

And Jesus was sleeping throughout this. I’d like to submit that you have to be pretty exhausted to sleep through a storm that makes experienced fishermen react like this. And no one likes to be woken up from a sound sleep. He rebuked them, but I have to confess that my reaction would probably have been worse: “I’m sorry, Jesus. I really regret having to interrupt your nap. It’s just that, you know, WE’RE ABOUT TO DIE!!!! So I thought you might want to know.”

Remember how I like “tension” verses? Well, this passage also highlights two mysterious truths in tension for us—Jesus was (and is) fully man and fully God. One minute he lies down in the back of the boat and immediately falls into a deep enough slumber to not even notice a deadly storm. And the next minute, he stands up in the boat and orders the storm to be quiet. Of course, any person (probably not quite right in the head) could talk to a storm and "rebuke" it like this. The difference between this Man and any other man. . . was that the storm listened.

You know the image that’s in my head every time I read this story? I love my dogs dearly, but one of them is a half-Chihuahua mix. Every person who comes to the door, especially strangers (or her arch-nemesis, the mailman) is the source of at least ten minutes of barking that rattles your ears. And when she does that, I tell her “That’s enough.” If she doesn’t listen and keeps barking, I say to her even more firmly—with some authority in my voice—“That’s enough!!!! Be quiet!!!” That’s the image we’re presented of Jesus and this storm. He stands up in the boat and tells it “Hush! Be quiet!” and the storm immediately quiets down like my dog, undoubtedly looking like this:

On a side-note, I promise you that we don't beat our dog.

And what’s the response of the disciples? Relief? Joy? A shout of glee that we’re not going to die? Maybe a little of all that. But Mark tells us that the main emotional response from the disciples in that boat was . . . fear. They'd been terrified of the storm a few moments before. And now they were even more terrified of the Man in front of them. Why? Because they knew that, as dangerous as the storm was, there was someone even more dangerous in the boat with them right now.

So what does this mean to us? I’ve heard lots of sermons that spiritualize the storm and urge you to trust Jesus in the midst of metaphorical “storms” in your life. I guess there’s some validity to that. If you’re going through a “storm” like a job loss or divorce or the loss of a loved one, then it’s good to know that the Lord can calm that storm whenever he pleases.

But I’d also like to note a different aspect of this. Our gentle, wonderful Savior can be scary at times. If you’re on his bad side, you have every reason to be frightened. And if you know him, then this is a good reminder that our relationship with him should be mixed with some godly fear that has some trembling at times. He’s not your best buddy. He’s God Almighty, and all the forces of creation know better than to cross him. Just a thought.

Lord Jesus, I am sooooooo glad that I’m covered by your blood, and you count me as your friend. That’s a good thing.

[May 28]--Scattering Seed, Part Two

Mark 4:1-20

I know that we looked at this yesterday, but there was so much extra side material that we never actually got to the parable. Like I mentioned before, this story is important enough to the Savior that he took the time to actually explain the deeper meaning here. something he very rarely did. And I don't know if you noticed it, but Matthew, Mark and Luke (under the inspiration of the Spirit) all thought this story important enough to include in all three Gospels. You can read the passage itself, so I won’t summarize it again. Here are some applications which I immediately see here:

• First, I see this as a warning to half-hearted listeners. The “seed” of the Good News was the same no matter where it fell. The only thing that made a difference was the type of “soil” onto which it fell. If you hear God’s message and don’t respond appropriately, the blame falls on you. On Judgment Day, the Judge will have very little patience with excuses like “But I was raised in a family that was hypocritical about religion,” or “When someone told me about Jesus, they didn’t do it in a way that appealed to ME.” God’s truth is the same—yesterday, today, and always. If you don’t listen, that’s on you.

• Second, this is a case for preparation as much as possible. The “path” soil can be broken up and softened, to some degree at least, by preparing the listener. There are all types of obstacles to accepting the Good News, some natural and some supernatural. The job of the church is to remove unnecessary barriers that people have erected. That’s why I’m in the church I’m in. When it comes to the God’s truth, that’s not negotiable. When it comes to things like preaching styles or musical styles or aesthetics like chair arrangements or a host of other issues, it should be tailored to the intended audience.

• Third, this is a reminder that there are spiritual/supernatural aspects to this. Yes, Jesus believed in the existence of Satan. And when the Good News is presented to a lost person, prayer is the number one weapon in our arsenal against him. I promise you, there’s nothing that gets his attention faster than the prospect of a soul being snatched out of his kingdom. You’ve got to be prepped for opposition.

• Fourth, this brings us back to the trap of easy-believism. Some evangelists are so much caught up into numbers that they accept any person as safe in the Kingdom who walks down an aisle, says a prayer, and gets baptized . There are plenty of people like the “rocky” soil who are caught up in a moment of emotion. They have no real root in the Savior, and when tough times come, they abandon Christ's cause.

• Fifth, this warns us of the danger of distractions. What choked the seed? Worry about life, the deceitfulness of wealth (there’s a sermon right there), and greed for more possessions. Any of these can turn a searching soul away from truly following the Savior.

• Sixth, this is an exhortation for believers to spread the “seed” far and wide. That’s one of the lessons I learned as a salesman: The next person you ask might say “no,” but he definitely won’t say “yes” unless you ask him. Or to put it in hockey terms (my favorite sport), you won’t make every shot at the goal, but you’ll miss every shot that you don’t take. The further you broadcast the Message, the more response you’ll get.

• Seventh, this is an encouragement for Christians, especially evangelists and other ministers who've tried to reach as many people as possible. It’s tough, I know. But if you get only 25% of those whom you reach, then that’s normal according to this parable. You’re not going to lead every lost soul to Christ. But when you actually see things work the way they’re supposed to work, what a blessing it is! It’s much more than a 100% return on your investment. Sometimes you’ll see a “thirty-fold” return, and sometimes you’ll see a “hundred-fold” return. But if you keep in step with the Spirit and do things under his guidance, you’ll eventually see a harvest. And you’ll be able to say at the end of it all “It was worth it. Every drop of blood, every moment of my time, all the ‘no’s’ I heard, all the sacrifices I made was all worth it.” And it will be.

Lord Jesus, it’s so hard sometimes to keep plowing, keep planting, keep weeding, and keep waiting for a harvest. Sometimes we just have to wait for your timing, right? When will it happen?

[May 27]--Scattering Seed

Mark 4:1-20

I have a confession to make, before we go any further. I was raised in Dallas, TX. My Dad has a farm which he loves to go to. He’s raised almost every crop you can think of: watermelons, cucumbers, squash, etc. And I hate farming. No, really, I hate it. Not just a little. So the few times I’ve actually “helped” him on the farm, I spent the whole time just waiting to be done.

The reason I say this is that I have a slight disadvantage when it comes to studying the Bible. It was written in an agricultural society, and even urban dwellers knew a lot more about farming than I do. That’s why many of Jesus’ stories have a setting that assumes that the listener/reader knows something about this. Of course I can overcome it, but it takes some extra study.

Add to this the fact that ancient Middle-Eastern farmers had slightly different practices from today. Back then, farmers would go up and down the fields and scatter their seed everywhere by hand, which by its nature would cause the seed to land in all types of soil or environment. What Jesus described in this story literally happened every day. We read the story and think “That’s a pretty crazy way to farm.” His first listeners would hear it and think “Well, duh! I just saw that exact thing last week. What’s Jesus’ point here?” All this is to say that a good study Bible is really helpful.

Then we come to one of the oddest-seeming passages in all the Bible. His disciples came to him and asked him about the parable. And he says something that’s pretty counterintuitive. The main point of parables, according to this passage, is not to make things clearer but to obscure them. Jesus did not want to make himself perfectly clear all the time. What?!?!? What type of teacher is that?!?!

Jesus had all types of people in his public audiences. Some were spies sent by the religious leaders to find something with which to accuse him. In front of these people Jesus didn’t want to say anything that would provoke a premature confrontation, so his speech would be purposefully vague at times. But there was another group of people whom Jesus had in mind as well. You could call these fence-sitters or thrill-seekers. They were casual hearers. They weren’t really there because they wanted a right relationship with God or to fill the hunger in their soul. And if they only heard what they thought was gobbly-gook, they'd move on.

But contained in these crowds there was final type of person. This was a true seeker. This was a person whom God was drawing with his Spirit. And if something that Jesus said didn’t make perfect sense, they wouldn’t let that turn them away. They'd keep seeking until they had real answers. Jesus’ parables would pique their curiosity, not be an excuse to write him off.

The point that I’m making is that Jesus is looking for quality of followers over mere quantity. In this age in which pastors are constantly looking at the numbers as an indication of the Lord’s blessing, this is a stark reminder. Yes, we desire to have everyone saved, just as our Savior God does. But it does no good to have someone walk an aisle, sign a card, pray a prayer, then walk away. In fact, if anything someone would end up worse off than they began.

There’s one other little note I’d like to make concerning this passage before we get to the parable. When his disciples came and asked him about it, he rebuked them pretty harshly. Mark’s Gospel, more than the others, records Jesus rebuking his disciples for a lack on their part. That’s a very intriguing point if, as church tradition says, Mark’s main source is Peter. That would be a testimony to the humility that Christ had worked into his apostle.

Since we’re already running a little long, let’s take the actual story tomorrow. I think you’ll find it worth your time.

Lord Jesus, I have to admit that I can relate to the disciples pretty frequently. Please give me understanding and a soft heart to listen and obey.

[May 26]--What’s The Unpardonable Sin?

Mark 3:20-30

In all my years of teaching Scripture and attempting to disciple new believers, I can usually count the minutes until this question comes up. Most new Christians, especially if they came from a church background, are worried about this. For some reason, this has caused more consternation among God’s children than just about any other problem, and so many people are wondering and worrying whether they’ve committed this “unpardonable sin.” Let’s take a look at this passage and some others so that we can think clearly and biblically about this.

So the crowds are around Jesus, and his family actually comes to take him away as a crazy person. His own family, the ones with whom he had grown up, were coming to seize him as someone who’s mentally unbalanced. Of course, his own (half-)brothers didn’t believe in him, but this is a bit much. It just goes to show that neutrality concerning Christ is not a long-term option. You’ll either dismiss him and try to lock him up as a madman or bow at his feet as Lord.

And what was the Pharisees’ reaction to him? They saw his miracles, heard his teaching, saw the changes in peoples’ lives, and called him demon-possessed. This is where the really controversial subject comes up. And if all we had of God’s word was Mark’s Gospel, we’d really be confused. Thankfully this isn’t the sum total of what we have. So let’s use the rest of Scripture and some sanctified common-sense to sort this out, shall we?

First, notice first that Jesus seems to make a strong distinction 1) between “sins and. . . slander" that people commit everyday and  2) “[blaspheming] against the Holy Spirit.” Matthew’s version expands on this a little bit, making a contrast between 1) “[speaking] a word against [Jesus] and 2) [speaking] against the Holy Spirit.” So there’s something different about this one sin that sets it apart from others.

And one obvious thing that sets it apart is the very possibility of being forgiven. Jesus doesn't say "If you commit this sin, you're in real trouble unless you repent and ask forgiveness," which would really apply to any sin out there we could think of. No, he says that anyone committing this one sin will never be pardoned, in this life or in the one to come. Let me remind you, we’ll see murderers in heaven (like David), so whatever this “unpardonable” sin is, it’s not murder. Same with adultery. Same with theft. Also let me point you—once again—to 1 John 1:9, which promises that if we confess, he will forgive and cleanse. The passage in Mark is talking about an offence which, once committed, will never be forgiven. Not ever.

And why would Jesus make it a point of mentioning the Holy Spirit? Why is offending the Holy Spirit so serious that you’ll never be forgiven? As opposed to offending Jesus, which I do with every sin?

Again, the key is knowing your Bible. In John 16:7-11, we’re told that it’s the Spirit’s job to convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. And not just any old sin. In this passage the Spirit specifically convicts us of not believing in Jesus. Yes, that’s a sin. In fact, I would submit that it’s the only sin that God won’t (and can’t) forgive. What's the “unpardonable” sin? How can you “blaspheme against the Holy Spirit”? Well, it’s the one sin that’ll keep you out of heaven, namely rejecting Jesus as Savior. And it’s the Spirit who’s telling you that you need to submit to Christ and trust him.

That’s why vs. 30 actually tells us what the Pharisees had done which was so bad. By claiming that he was demon-possessed, they'd done much more than just slandering an innocent man. By looking at his miracles and by hearing his teaching and yet still accusing him of working with Satan, they were showing that they were utterly closing themselves off to their only hope.

So if you’re worried about committing this “unpardonable” sin, stop. If you had committed it, you wouldn’t be worried about it. But let’s focus on the positive side of this for a moment, shall we? Each one of us who's trusted in Christ can personally testify that all types of sins and blasphemies are forgiven. His blood has covered our sin once and for all, and it will never be brought up again. Kinda makes your day, doesn’t it?

Lord Jesus, I know what it cost you to forgive me. May I never forget, may I never get over it. Never.

[May 25]--Why The Big Secret?

Mark 3:7-12

Like all of us, I’m sure that you’ve had a secret that someone made you swear not to tell. As an elder and would-be minister, there’ve been plenty of times in which I’ve had to keep confidence and not share things that someone entrusted to me. Doesn’t it feel like something in you is about to burst?

In the Gospels, theologians have had to wrestle with what they call the “Messianic secret.” You see it today, but the phenomenon is scattered throughout the Gospels, mostly in the Synoptics. For some reason, Jesus didn’t want it publically known that he was the Messiah or the Son of God. We saw this in the Scripture reading from the 21st, although I didn’t comment on it at the time: Jesus healed the leper and told him to go show the priest but not to tell anyone else about it. It was pretty common for Jesus to heal someone and then forbid them to broadcast what happened. It happened so frequently that some non-believing scholars have actually claimed that Jesus really didn’t think he was the Messiah, that his followers forced this on him. It is absolutely true that Jesus never explicitly claimed to be the Messiah until his trial (with one exception—the Samaritan woman at the well). We believe he was the Messiah, the Anointed One of God sent to save us. So why the hush-hush?

Before we get to the issue of why he was ordering people to keep his work semi-secret, we need to ask an interesting question: What was the deal with demons revealing who Jesus is and with Jesus’ refusal to let that happen? Well, were these beings somehow forced to cry out the truth? It doesn’t seem so to me. If they were forced, it wasn’t by the Son, who wanted them to be quiet. So they wanted, for some reason, to reveal to the crowds around them who Jesus was. I think one reason he ordered them to silence was the same reason why they wanted to broadcast: To do so would hamper his ministry and purpose. And the other reason (and this is pure speculation): I think he has no desire to be praised by demons. He delights in the praises of his people, not by filthy fallen angels. So how could this hamper his ministry?

First, there was the problem of logistics. Despite being God Incarnate, he was also one Man, and only a certain amount of people could see him every day, and he could only give personal attention to a certain number as well. He'd chosen to limit himself in some ways to humanity’s boundaries. You can see this played out in the Leper story we read. Jesus told him not to tell people about it. As people tend to do, the man disobeyed Jesus, and as a result of the crowds Christ’s ministry was severely hampered.

Second, there was the problem of expectations. People had lots of different ideas about the Messiah, but most of them saw him as a great military leader in the vein of King David or Joshua. He was supposed to raise up an army and supernaturally defeat the Romans and establish Israel as the preeminent nation on earth. So if Jesus went around calling himself “Messiah,” then that was the misconception people would attach to him. Also to rise up as a political leader would inevitably lead to a physical confrontation with Rome, and that also was not on the agenda.

Third, there was the problem of purpose. Despite some peoples’ image of him, Jesus did not come primarily to teach or heal or provide an example for us to follow. He did all of those things, but they aren’t why he came. He came to die. He came to fulfill the Father’s will by taking our sins upon himself and thus provide salvation and eventually destroy Satan’s kingdom. If word got out that he was a healer, then that would be the main reason why people came to him. As wonderful as the miracles were, he didn’t want to be known primarily as the “miracle man.”

But we need to keep in mind that this whole thing was an issue of timing. During his earthly ministry he kept public exposure of his identity under a tightly monitored lid. Now that he’s risen and ascended to the Father and sent his Spirit to live in all of us, all restrictions are off. On the contrary, his last instructions before returning to Heaven were to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

So what’s the application here? To me there’s one word that summarizes it: shame. I am shamed by the many people--and even the demons—who had to be told to shut up about Jesus. I don’t know about you, but I have the exact opposite problem. And that bothers me. A lot.

Lord Jesus, you’ve appointed me as your representative, your herald, your ambassador, your messenger. I shouldn’t take that lightly, sometimes I do. Please help.

[May 24]--Shriveled Hand, Shriveled Hearts

Mark 3:1-6

Today’s passage is sort of milestone. This is the last of five—count ‘em, five—confrontations which Jesus had with the religious leaders in a short space of time. They seemed to fight over a host of issues--not just the Sabbath, but that was an essential battlefield. We talked about the Pharisees last year in September, so we won’t go into too much detail over them. But since Mark spends a great deal of time (in a short book) on these encounters, this is worth noting.

As was his custom, Jesus was at a synagogue on the Sabbath, and Luke’s version mentions that he was teaching. A man with a shriveled hand showed up, and apparently the Master wanted to teach them something using a living object lesson.

Notice that the Pharisees were watching him carefully in order to find something to accuse him of. I find it pretty interesting that they halfway expected Jesus to heal the man on the Sabbath and so break their traditions. Apparently he already had a reputation as the type of person who'd do this.

I could be wrong, but it sure seems to me that Jesus was looking for a fight. It appears that he was looking for ways to offend the Pharisees. The man could have waited another day, or Jesus could've just healed him in private if compassion was the only factor in his timing. No, he wanted to heal this man--right here and right now--right in front of everyone else, especially the religious leaders.

And his questions are like swords, meant to cut past all the smoke and mirrors and get to the heart of the issue. The main point isn’t how to observe the Sabbath, as important as that is. The main point isn’t even compassion for people, as important as that is. The main point is: What type of God are you serving? A God who puts rules on people just for the sake of putting burdens on them? A God whose main concern is rule-keeping? Or a God who’s compassionate and gracious, who delights in restoring people? Even the rules he gives us (like the Sabbath which he gave to the Israelites) are there to benefit us. And if we need to ask ourselves if the Lord would interpret his laws broadly enough to allow me to help someone in need, then our view of him is skewed, because that’s not the God of the Bible.

Jesus saw that his words weren’t getting through to them, and this made him angry. Please keep in mind that very rarely do the Gospels record the Savior getting angry, and never for his own sake. He can heal a shriveled hand with a word, but shriveled hearts need something more.

I think I mentioned this before, but vs. 6 has a heavy irony which you might have missed if you didn’t know the background. Pharisees were ardent nationalists: They hated Rome and everything it stood for. Herodians were secularists who advocated working with Rome and its representatives (like Herod, the local king, hence their name). Normally they would've hated each other, since they agreed on virtually nothing. But in this one instance they could agree on something: Jesus had to die. They were still working on the details, but it was “when,” not “if” they'd attempt to kill him. When it comes to Christ’s message, you’d be amazed at how people can be unified in hatred of it. And of course there’s the extra irony that the “Strain out the gnat” law keepers are now plotting the murder of an innocent man.

This is what makes Jesus angry. When people ignore his Father’s boundaries (like murder) and priorities (like compassion) and set up their own boundaries and priorities, that makes him upset. And, I would expect, a little sad.

Lord Jesus, is there any hardness in my heart? Any area in which I’m not listening to you? Whatever needs to be done, break up the stony places. Yes, whatever it takes.

[May 23]--Repeat Offender

Mark 2:23-28

When reading the Gospels, a lot of the narratives we can immediately relate to or at least understand. But this emphasis on the Sabbath—It seems pretty odd to most modern readers. It was a sore subject between the religious leaders and Jesus over and over and over and over. At times it looks like Jesus was purposefully picking a fight with them over this issue.

God had told the Israelites not to work on the Sabbath. It had made his “top ten” list, so it was pretty important to him. To most of us, it seems pretty clear. But what constitutes “work”? Over time, the religious leaders had erected a series of fences around the Sabbath so that you wouldn’t even come close to breaking it. If the Lord set up a barrier not to cross, then you wanted to stay a certain distance away from it. For example, women were ordered not to look in a mirror on the Sabbath, because if they saw a grey hair they would be tempted to pluck it out, and that would be work. It appears that the intentions were good, but you all know the saying about where that can lead.

And we see a confrontation over that issue here again. Jesus and his disciples were walking, and they took heads of grain, rubbed the heads together to open them, and ate. This was specifically permitted under the Torah: It was a way for land owners to offer charity to their neighbors, and the Lord allowed people passing by a field to do this. But again the teachers of the Law had added tradition to what God had said—You could pick crops, but to rub grains together was threshing, and thus working on the Sabbath.

So Jesus countered their traditions with God’s word, which he regularly did. He pointed them back to the story of David and his men, which is recorded in 1 Sam. 21:1-6. David’s group was fleeing from King Saul, and they hadn’t eaten for days. They came to Ahimelech the priest and asked him for food. The only food available was the bread which, under God’s law, was only supposed to be eaten by the priests. But David asked anyway, and the priest gave. And according to Jesus, the Author of Scripture, it was right--in this instance--to go against God’s law.

Now we have to be very careful here. In this day and age, when accountability to any type of rules is laughed at, I’m extremely reluctant to discourage rule following. If anything, the church in this society desperately needs a reminder that God doesn’t offer suggestions. If I say that “People are more important than rules,” then folks can easily misinterpret it and see a false dichotomy between following rules and loving people. But notice Jesus’ reasoning here: The Sabbath was made for man. One of the primary reasons why God gave us boundaries was for our benefit, to protect and help us. His purpose was to help us, not load us down with unnecessary burdens. Behind every rule and law is a Father’s love. But there are circumstances, few and far between, in which people’s benefit outweighs strict rule-following. During World War 2, lots of people risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazis. If a Nazi soldier came in and asked “Are there any Jews hiding here?” then strict truth-telling would dictate that you say “Yes sir, they’re in my closet right over there.” Do you honestly think that this is what the Lord would want you to do? But if you think that this is a license to ignore God’s instructions whenever we feel like it, then you haven’t been reading this devotional for very long. And you’ve even missed the point of the first part of this paragraph.

And there’s something else to keep in mind here. Jesus was not advocating going against God’s law (which he never would), but against their traditions. God had specifically allowed something, and their interpretation was actually nullifying that.

And then we come to one of the most shocking statements in this Gospel. It’s true that John’s Gospel is the most explicit in testifying to the deity of Christ—In fact that’s one of its main themes. But the other Gospel writers believed in the deity of Christ as well, and there’s proof right here. He told them that he’s the One who has the ultimate authority to interpret how the Sabbath should be obeyed. Why? Because he’s the Lord of the Sabbath. Who instituted the Sabbath again? That’s right—God. So when he’s making this claim, there’s only one conclusion to reach.

So what lessons can we draw here? First, it’s entirely possible to care about following rules more than about people, especially as we mature as believers. Second, I need to be very careful not to elevate my traditions and interpretations above what God clearly says. Third, if there’s any question about how to interpret a book, why not go to the Author on a regular basis and ask him about it?

Lord Jesus, am I guilty of imitating the Pharisees? If I am, then please set me straight. You’re the Boss, and my interpretation of your word needs to come straight from you. Anything that comes from man is worthless at best.

[May 22]--People Magnet

Mark 2:13-17

Is it wrong to want to hang out with people who look like you? People who act like you? People who share your values? I’m actually of two minds concerning it. On the positive side, we have to acknowledge that this is nigh-universal behavior. And no, it’s not a white thing or a black thing or an Asian thing or a rich person thing or a poor person thing. It's a human thing. Whether it should be or not, we all have to admit that it is. It seems to be a natural tendency to want to associate with people who are like you.

But is it right? Well, that’s another issue. I think it’s usually a good idea to stretch your boundaries a little and come into contact with folks who are different than you. Maybe. . .gasp!!! Maybe even people who disagree fundamentally with your core beliefs.

Please don’t misunderstand me. Scripture tells us to encourage each other daily, which would entail spending at least some of your time with fellow believers so that you can lift each other up and also challenge each other. And if one of us is flirting with a kooky theological notion, then hopefully his brothers can step in and intervene.

There also might be the issue of falling back into an immoral lifestyle. If you were involved with, say, drunkenness on a regular basis, then it’s probably not the best idea to hang around with heavy drinkers, at least not until you can handle it. If they’re influencing you more than you influencing them, then there’s a problem.

But having said all that, if we’re not associating with people who are deeply involved with sin, then we’re not following the example of our Savior, are we? Today’s reading tells us the story of Jesus’ calling of Levi. We aren’t told of any prior contact with him, so presumably Christ just walked up to the man—while sitting at the tax-collector’s booth—and called him into discipleship. Luke’s account mentions that Levi left “everything” behind, which apparently meant all the money that had been collected. And of course you also know him as Matthew, the writer of the 1st Gospel.

You’re probably heard this before, but it’s hard to overstate just how hated the tax collectors were. Every one of them was a collaborator with Rome, the state that was oppressing them. And on top of that, they regularly collected more than was due, and kept the extra for themselves, flagrantly robbing their fellow Jews.

And this was the type of man whom Jesus called. And what did Levi do? He called all his friends so that they could meet the Master. And what kind of people would be his friends? You can surely guess. Of course other tax collectors, but also Mark notes that “sinners” of other types were there as well—people known to be involved in immoral lifestyles.

And here are two amazing things about this dinner party. First, there’s no mention that the “sinners” were unhappy to be around Jesus. For some reason, he didn’t put them off. And the other amazing thing is that there’s no indication that Jesus was uncomfortable with them.

How do we reconcile this with the fact that Jesus is holy God incarnate? The God who can’t stand sin, like we read about recently? Well, the only explanation that I can offer is the one presented by Jesus himself: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” He absolutely hates sin, but he loves the sinners. It’s just like any doctor who loves his patients and hates the cancer that kills them. In fact, he hates the cancer because he loves his patients.

By the way, how do we interpret this distinction he makes between “the righteous” and “sinners”? Are there some people who actually are “righteous”? Not according to Paul: The apostle makes it clear that none of us are righteous, at least as far as God's court of justice is concerned. It makes perfect sense if you imagine the word "righteous" here in quotation marks, in other words referring to people who call and think of themselves as righteous. There are two types of people in the world—Those who know that they’re lost and in desperate need of a Savior, and those who don’t know, who think they're righteous before God. If you don't think or know that you're a sinner in need of a Savior, then Jesus isn't calling you, in the sense that he really has nothing more to say to you until you do. It's the same sense in which AA has nothing to say to you until you admit that you have a problem with booze.

As a preacher I heard once put it, Jesus doesn't call white people or black people, men or women, Americans or Brazilians or Chinese or whatever other identity you have. He calls only one type of people: Sinners. And if you come to him, that's the only basis on which you're going to do so, bringing nothing to this meeting except your sin and your need.

I can see how this applies to us, can’t you? First, this is a reminder that I need to take any notion of self-righteousness and drive a stake through its heart. My sins are not as public as some folks’, but I need the blood of Christ as much as anyone else. Second, I think it’s time for me to pray for opportunities to stretch my “comfort zone.” Or maybe I just need to pray for eyes to see the opportunities he’s already placed in front of me.

Lord Jesus, where do you want me to go? Who needs to be told about and shown your love?

[May 21]--The Great Reversal

Mark 1:40-45

This passage will always hold a special place in my heart, since it’s the one that I was forced to expound upon for one of my Bible courses in college. I had to dissect these verses word-by-word. I had to examine at least five different commentaries and cite them frequently. I had to do a study on the background of leprosy and what this man probably experienced in that community and during that time. I also had to cite other Bible verses (like from Leviticus) which gave commands concerning situations like this. In spite of all this, it’s still one of my favorite passages in all the Gospels. Let’s take a look.

I think it’s hard to overestimate the misery that this man had undergone for as long he had this disease. By the way, it’s likely not referring to what we think of in terms of modern leprosy: The Greek and Hebrew both used general terms which could apply to all types of contagious skin diseases. But whatever the disease was, it completely sealed this man off from everything and everyone he held dear. If he walked down a street, he had to call out “Unclean! Unclean!” in order to warn everyone to stay away. Little children would run screaming from him. He would have no contact with his family. He was completely dependent on the charity of others, since there was no way he could ever hold a job. And of course he could forget about ever entering the temple to worship with others. He undoubtedly had to live outside the town, and the only companions he would have would be other outcasts. For someone in that culture, which prized family connections so highly, this would be a living hell.

And then the man heard about Jesus. He pled with the Master to heal him. And here’s something that’s especially poignant. Mark’s Gospel is the only one that specifically mentions that Jesus was “moved with pity.” He saw this man’s plight, and was moved to do something about it. And then all the Synoptic versions of the story tell us that the Savior did something extraordinary in response: He reached out and touched him.

Why would he do this, and why would the Gospel writers point it out? Keep in mind that this man needed more than just physical healing. He'd been cut off from all human contact, possibly for years. No one had touched him. He needed emotional healing as well as physical restoration. And Jesus, moved by compassion, reached out and touched him.

Now here’s where it gets really interesting, at least to me. If you had to do so, you could sum up the entire Old Testament Law with one word: separation. The people of Israel were to be separate from the Gentiles around them. You had clean and unclean food, houses, animals, and clothing. Yes, you couldn’t mix different fabrics in your clothes. You couldn’t mix different crops in your garden. You had holy vs. common days of the year. You had holy vs. common people (priests vs. laity). And worst of all, you had clean and unclean people. Most people would be unclean at some time in their lives, if only for a short period. Women were unclean a few days out of the month, and a man could be unclean if he visited a grave site. Most of the time, you washed yourself, avoided human contact, and couldn’t enter the temple for a day or so. If you touched someone or something, then your uncleanness was spread like a disease. And if you were leprous, you were probably going to be unclean for the rest of your life.

And then Jesus arrives, and the whole process is reversed. He reached out and touched the man, and the uncleanness of the leper didn’t infect him. Instead, the Savior's “cleanness” spread to the man. For the first time in recorded history, the horrible process of spreading uncleanness was not just quarantined off but reversed.

And it didn’t stop there. Jesus had a heart for those whose uncleanness was on the inside instead of out. The prostitute, the tax collector, and the swearing fisherman all experienced this. And when he died, the curtain separating the holy presence of God from the rest of us was torn in two. Not from bottom to top (as if a human could accomplish it) but from top to bottom.

And this Great Reversal is supposed to be reflected in our lives as believers as well. All too often, believers take an O.T. approach to "unclean" people: We quarantine them off from us, lest they spread their infection. I understand the concern: We can't let ourselves be dragged into other peoples' sin. I get that. But the coming of Jesus brings a new era, a whole new paradigm of how to deal with this, Our ultimate goal is not to seal ourselves off from unclean people but to be agents of the cleanness of our Savior to people who need him. After all, salt does no good still in the shaker, and a candle can't light up a room if it's under a bowl. Light is meant to invade darkness, and salt is meant to be mixed in with food, right?

Am I following that principle? Not nearly as much as I should. All too often I find myself slipping into the O.T. method--quarantine--rather than participating in the Great Reversal. And I'm making the effort to do that.

And the first sign of it that we see in Mark’s Gospel is a poor leper begging for relief.

Thank you, Lord Jesus. I was once was as filthy as I could be, but you cleansed me with one touch. Let me just meditate on that for a moment. And then, please let me be your agent of spreading your cleansing power everywhere I go. 

[May 20]--Early Riser

Mark 1:35-39

If you’re new to this and are wondering why I skipped some verses in Mark, then you should know something: This is a devotional, not a commentary. Between last year and this one, we’re going to at least read most of the Gospels. But in order to avoid repeating myself, we’re going to skip over some passages which will be covered in other studies.

I have to admit, however, that this is one of the most convicting passages in Scripture for me. Since the name of this blog is the TAWG, let’s spend a few minutes talking about that, shall we?

First off, we should note that there’s no specific command to spend time alone with God on a daily basis. We’re commanded to encourage each other daily as siblings in Christ. But I can’t tell you that we’re commanded to spend time alone with him daily. And since a lot of (or most) people who've been exposed to God's word have been illiterate, it wouldn't have been practical for him to issue a universal command to read the Bible every day.

But there are plenty of reasons to have some type of time alone with God every day. Since all of Scripture is “God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” then I think it would be a good idea to have a plan to systematically read all the way through it. Personally, my wife and I are on a 3-year plan, and (God willing) we’ll finish it next year. If you get into a routine of reading God’s word at least once a day, that seems like a good idea. And of course you’d want to spend at least a few moments in prayer, asking for guidance from the Holy Spirit and putting yourself in the proper frame of mind for listening to what he wants to say.

This needs some clarification, however. Although it’s great to have at least a few minutes each day in seclusion with your Father, that doesn’t limit you in how often you speak with him during the day. You can pray anywhere (just keep your eyes open while driving), and if you keep a copy of your Bible handy--and if you have a smartphone, then you always have it handy--then all the better.

Now let’s get to my least favorite aspect of this--the time when to do it. There’s no doubt about it: Our Savior was an early riser when it came to spending time alone with the Father. In fact, he literally was up before dawn in order to do this. There are really good arguments for doing this, of course. The pace and atmosphere of your day is set within the first fifteen minutes. If you spend the first few minutes grumbling and complaining about having to go into work and deal with that boss again, then you’ve got a negative day before you even start. But if you spend a few minutes alone with the Father in private worship, prayer, and Bible-reading, then that also will set the tone for your day.

But let me make a confession here. I don't normally have my full TAWG at the beginning of the day. I’m very much a night-owl, and that’s my most productive time. In the morning my brain takes a while to get up to full speed, and I wouldn’t get much use out of a full Bible study. So I do the next best thing—I pray for just a few moments, then go into my day. I reserve my full one-on-one time with my Savior for when my brain can actually focus on what we’re doing.

But let me close with this. No matter what time of day you do it, it’s best to be consistent. Try to find a time and place where there are a minimum of distractions. If you wanted to have an intimate talk with your spouse, then you probably wouldn’t want to do it while dodging cars during the morning commute or in the middle of a crowded restaurant. You’d find some privacy, so you could concentrate on what both of you are saying. It’s the same with this.

Right now your Father wants to say something to you. It might be a word of comfort for you during your struggle. It might be a nudge in a new direction for your life. It might concern a sin that you committed and never confessed, which will slowly drain you of your joy and peace. If you don’t slow down for a little bit, how would you ever know? Listen.

Yes Lord, I’m listening. Please slow me down. Please give me listening ears and a soft heart, so that you can change me.

[May 19]--First Round

Mark 1:21-28

After the calling of Jesus’ first apostles, Mark records that they went to Capurnaum, which was a major city in Galilee. Although his ministry was mainly among the Jewish people, much of his time was actually spent in Galilee, well-known for its Gentile population and considered to be a center of loose morals. It wasn’t for nothing that it was called “Galilee of the Gentiles,” and I assure you that this wasn’t a compliment. So this was the type of people Jesus liked to hang around with. . . hmmmmm.

They attended synagogue (as was Jesus’ habit on the Sabbath), and our Lord was invited to teach. But there in the middle of the service stood up a man who wasn’t alone inside his body.

Do I believe that demonic possession is/was real? Absolutely. Does it seem that it was more prominent back in Jesus’ day than today? I believe so. Please keep in mind, of course, that the rest of the world has no problem accepting things like possession. Once you leave the U.S., it gets a lot more common, especially among people who are actively involved in the worship of spirits. But even with this in consideration, it seems to be more concentrated in that era than today. I personally believe that it was specifically because the Son of God had arrived. Once the King showed up, it was an open declaration of warfare, so of course the Enemy stirred up his forces in open opposition.

So we need to keep in mind that there is a Devil, and he’s active in the world today as surely as he was back then. It seems that he’s more subtle now than he was during that time, though. I mean, think about it--He doesn’t need to possess people. I once heard someone compare him to a pawn shop owner: He claims all the unredeemed. Why should he possess a guy if he owns him outright?

But in this case a poor soul was being tormented by a demon, a servant of the Enemy. Why was he there in a synagogue during the service? My theory is that he was hoping to disrupt Jesus’ teaching. I find his response to Christ’s presence to be very enlightening, however. To the human eye, this teacher from Nazareth was an ordinary man. Probably he had dirt under his fingernails, his hands were calloused from physical labor, and his clothes were undoubtedly nothing to notice.

But that’s not what the demon saw! He saw the Son of God, the One who threw his master out of heaven and whose very presence burned into him like a magnifying glass on an ant during a summer day. I just find it sad and humorous that most of the time the people in a town who knew him best were those possessed by demons.

I called today’s reading “First Round” since this is the first clash between the two great Kingdoms which is recorded in Mark’s Gospel. What happened out in the wilderness wasn’t a clash of forces as much as a temptation to take the easy way, the shortcut. This was the first (recorded) time in which Jesus’ power and Satan’s power came head-to-head. But really calling it a “clash” is a misnomer as well. I guess if you want to call what happens when you flip a light switch a “clash” between light and darkness, then you could do the same here. As soon as light steps in, the darkness flees as quick as it possibly can.

I find that really comforting, don’t you? We talk about the “struggle” between God’s Kingdom and Satan’s Kingdom, as if they’re two opposite and equal forces which are contesting control of everything. No, they’re not equal. Even before the Cross and the Resurrection, there wasn’t a real fight between the two.

And if I belong to Christ through faith in him, then I’m definitely on the right side of history. It doesn’t ultimately matter what battles we’re fighting right now, and it doesn’t even matter which battles it seems that we’re losing. The war’s won.

Lord Jesus, I thank you that your victory is my victory. I’m your co-heir, and that means something glorious. Can we see some more of that spilling over into my line of sight?

[May 18]--A Few Good Men

Mark 1:14-20

Shortly after Jesus’ baptism, John the Baptist was arrested and put into prison, from which he would never leave alive. Once his cousin was imprisoned, Jesus apparently stepped up his ministry considerably. The “opening act” was heading off stage, so now was the time for the “main event” to take front and center. Here are some notes which I’ve gleaned:

• We have here the essence of the Good News of God: repent and believe. If anyone thought that Jesus’ message was “grace” while John’s was “law,” they were sadly mistaken. Now the wait was over. The object of millions of prayers over hundreds of years had arrived. When Jesus was talking about the “time” was here, he wasn’t just referring to a chronological time, like the time of an event. This is the time of decision. The time for fence-sitting was over.

• And what was this “Good News”? There’s no mention of a specific message in Jesus’ announcement. That’s because he is the Good News. It’s almost like he’s saying “We’ll fill in the details later. But for now, you need to know that the Good News is standing right in front of you!”

• Along with everything else, this apparently was the time to recruit brother fishing teams into his Kingdom work. He first called Andrew and Peter. Andrew was already a follower of John the Baptist, so it looks like he and his brother returned to fishing after John’s arrest. Then the Lord called James and John, later nicknamed “the sons of Thunder.” It’s interesting that they left not only their commercial business (like Andrew and Peter) but also their father behind. It’s difficult to overestimate how shocking this would be to people in that culture: To leave one’s own father and the family business on the word of some crazy Rabbi. And obviously it was pretty profitable, since they had “hired men” as well.

• If you’ve heard it from a sermon or elsewhere, then I apologize, but it’s worth repeating—Jesus’ calling was “Follow me, and I’ll make you fishers of men.” If you aren’t fishing, then you aren’t following.

I think that it would be good to do a quick definition and study of this term “Kingdom of God,” which is repeatedly used in the Gospels, usually by Jesus. It’s a term for the rule of God on earth. There are three phases. First, the Kingdom appeared in the sense that the King was now present. He was the Kingdom Incarnate. Second phase is right now: As children and subjects of God’s Kingdom, we’re called to expand that Kingdom from Heaven down here to earth. You could say that everywhere Christians exist, a “colony” of Heaven is supposed to appear. And the final phase is when Christ appears at the end of history and sets up his Kingdom on earth.

So here are some possible applications for us from today’s passage. First, have you repented and believed in the Good News from God? Second, are you willing to leave behind family, your livelihood, and everything you’ve ever known, just on the word of Jesus? And third, have you been establishing a “colony of Heaven” in your home, your work, and in your circles of influence? If your answer is “Not as much as I should,” then join the club.

Lord Jesus, I know that I’m supposed to be planting your flag everywhere I go, but I don’t do that nearly often enough. Use me as your standard bearer, please.

[May 17]--Introduction

Mark 1:1-13

I don’t know if this is important to you, but you ought to know that (God willing) we’re going to spend the rest of the year in the New Testament. The plan is to go through Mark, Luke, and Acts through December. Along the way we’ll take short diversions into topical studies, such as the nature and work of the Holy Spirit, the Church, and possibly some others. Hope you’ll stick with me for the ride.

So we come to Mark, the shortest of the Gospels. Here are some notes about it:

• Church tradition is unanimous that it was written by John Mark, the cousin to Barnabas whose story is laid out in more detail in the book of Acts. He was well-known among the Church fathers as a close associate of Peter’s. Church tradition also says that Mark’s main source for his Gospel was in fact Peter’s preaching.

• There’s some dispute regarding this among Bible scholars, but the best evidence seems to indicate that this is the earliest Gospel, possibly written around the 50’s or early 60’s.

Here are some emphases which we’ll find here:

• Action! This Gospel spends a lot less time recording Jesus’ words and a lot more time recording his actions—especially miracles. You might notice he repeatedly uses the word “immediately” to introduce another section. There’s very little teaching in Mark’s Gospel which isn’t repeated in one or more of the others.

• It’s pretty obvious that its main audience were Gentiles, since he explains Jewish customs and translates words from the Aramaic (the language Jesus used) into Greek.

• It also seems that he has in mind persecuted Christians, hence the topic of persecution and serving Christ unto death. Therefore his Gospel would be meant as a source of encouragement and challenge to believers who were undergoing this.

• Succinct. Mark summarizes and “squeezes down” large portions of stories for his readers. Notice how short is Mark’s description of Jesus’ baptism and temptation compared to Matthew’s and Luke’s.

• Jesus as Servant. Each of the Gospels provide a portrait of Jesus with a different (not contradictory) emphasis of who Jesus was and is. In this Gospel Mark presents his Lord as the One sent to serve us. Of course, the ultimate display of this was at Jesus’ Passion.

Based on what we know about John the Baptist, I think he would've considered this version of his story his own personal favorite. It gives him a short introduction, tells how he baptized Jesus, and then from that point forward the Messiah is center stage. Any attention that John received he immediately tried to turn into attention towards his Savior, which is a great lesson for us all.

I think we can learn a lot from how the Gospels are similar, since that shows what was important to them. But I also find it interesting to note how they differ. For example, of the three versions of Jesus’ temptation, this is the only one that points out that he was with “the wild animals” out in the wilderness. Why would Mark note this? Why would it be important to him? Because many in his original audience were being fed to these animals as a public spectacle. Out in the middle of nowhere, where there were predators about, Jesus was perfectly safe. Not just because he was God in the flesh, but also because he was right in the center of the Father’s will. So Mark was saying to his audience “Remember, God’s still sovereign over everything. Whatever trial you’re facing, even if it kills you, is under the supervision of the Father. Trust him.”

And I think that’s a great reminder for us. Probably you’re not being fed to literal lions, but it might feel like that at times. I’m sure that there are people reading this who are going through problems which are much worse than mine. But please remember—Your Father is still in control. He’ll bring you to the other side of this. Just trust him.

Lord Jesus, please help me to keep this in mind. I do trust you—most of the time. Please help me to completely cast myself into your strong hands.

[May 16]--Transforming Grace

Titus 2:11-14; Phil. 2:12-13; Gal. 5:22-25

Today we finish our study on soteriology (why are you applauding?), and I’m going to wrap it up with a short discussion on God’s part in sanctification. Remember that sanctification is the process in which we become more like Christ in the way we think, talk, and act. We’ve gone over our part pretty extensively, and it's not rocket science: Spending time alone with God in reading his word and prayer, utilizing the church, and taking the practical steps you need in order to avoid sinful habits. But what’s God’s part in all this? What does he do?

Well, we know that he uses trials and discipline to grow us, but what does he do on the inside of us? The interesting thing is that there isn’t a lot in Scripture about this. There’s some, but not a lot of details. Quite frankly, the above passages were what I could find. Let’s take them one at a time. Before I go any further, however, I have to acknowledge that a lot of this material comes from Transforming Grace by Jerry Bridges, which I can’t recommend highly enough.

The Titus passage is one of my favorites in all Scripture, since it summarizes Christian belief so concisely. There’s not a lot that isn’t mentioned here: God’s grace in salvation, our sanctification, the Blessed Hope (I love that phrase), and why Jesus came in the first place and what’s his grand purpose for us. But I want to focus on one thing in particular here. Paul first talks about God’s grace that’s appeared to all men in bringing salvation. But what does he say next? That “It” teaches us to say “no” to the wrong things and “yes” to the right things. What’s “it”? The pronoun refers back to “grace.” In other words, the same grace that saves us also teaches us to be holy. There's saving grace and then there's sanctifying grace. When you were saved, more than just a transaction occurred. The Holy Spirit came to live inside you; this is one of the greatest gifts that the Father has given us, and now that Gift is working inside you and instructing you in holiness. This is grace that--in contrast to saving grace--we can grow in.

What do the verses in Philippians tell us? We are told to work out (not “for”) our salvation. The salvation that’s inside you is supposed to overflow into the physical world so that others can see it. What’s the Force behind this “working out” process? It’s God (in the Holy Spirit) who gives you both the motivation (“to will”) and the strength (“to act”) according to his purposes.

If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, then you know what I’m referring to. You’re tempted to do something wrong, and there’s a voice inside you that says “You shouldn’t do that.” Or someone in need is in front of you, and this voice says “Step forward and help that person.” My friend, that’s not just your conscience telling you that. It’s the Holy Spirit moving within you, causing you to want to be obedient.

And Paul says that God is moving within you to act as well. When you don’t feel like doing more service, or you don’t think you can resist that temptation any longer, you can. The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead (think about that power) now lives inside you, and he'll give you the strength you need.

And it’s the Spirit that produces fruit as well. Fruit is not formed by the tree “trying harder” or “putting more effort into it.” If the tree has the proper amount of water, sunlight, and nutrients from the soil, it’ll produce the fruit that its genetic structure determines. As we “keep in step with the Spirit” (which is our part again), he’ll produce the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

How exactly does he do this? I don’t know, but I do know that he uses the means of our cooperation. As we do our part, he’ll do his. And over time, you (and other people) will see a change. And you’ll be amazed at what his transforming grace can do.

Father, thank you for your Spirit who’s changing me. I’m not what I should be, but I’m not what I used to be, and I’m not all that I will be. Please give me what I need to change.

[May 15]--Assurance, Part Two

1 John 2:3-6; 3:6, 9

Yesterday we talked about assurance of salvation and how John tells us we can have it. You need to have the right belief (in Jesus) and right love (towards siblings in Christ). Now we come to the third test, the real kicker.

I need to write this out very carefully, and I plead with you to read it carefully as well. If there’s no change in your desire to please your Father which eventually works itself out into a changed lifestyle, then you have no assurance. I mean, there are plenty of verses in this book which make me wince every time I see them:

We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.
No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.
No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.

I really need to spend some time clarifying this. The same author who wrote the above statements also said this: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us,” and “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives."

We still sin as Christians. John said it. So how do we reconcile this? It’s the direction of your life that John’s addressing, not whether you’re committing this sin or that sin. Do you want to please your Father? Are you taking the steps necessary to deal with areas of disobedience? Is there growth? Is there improvement? Are you in the process of becoming like Christ? Do you see sin as the enemy of your soul?

There are a couple of other caveats that we need here. First, this is a process, not an instantaneous change. Yes, some people do undergo an overnight 180 degree change in their lifestyle. They were a drug addict or were sexually promiscuous, and the Lord grabbed a hold of them and they never did those things again. Of course, the first example of this that comes to mind is Paul, who immediately went from a hateful persecutor of Christians into the foremost spokesman for the faith. For most of us, however, the change is a lot more gradual.

Also we need to realize that this is a lifelong process. I recognize that there are some teachers out there who claim that it’s possible to be sinless in this life. I don’t buy it. Besides the 1 John verses we read above, Paul also confessed that he was a work in progress, that he hadn’t been made perfect yet. If you want to hear a more extended argument in favor of this position, I deal with it here.

I have so much respect for John Wesley that it’s not even funny. He founded the Methodist church and was one of the godliest men of his entire generation. The Lord used him in incredible ways. He believed and taught that it’s possible for a Christian to live a sinless life here on earth. But do you know what? On his deathbed he confessed that there was still sin that he was dealing with.

So how does this relate to the “backsliding believer”? If you’ve been a Christian long enough, you’ll see him: Someone who supposedly received Christ as Savior and Lord, and who now lives like the Devil. He’s completely abandoned any claim to be following Christ, and is actively disobedient. Well, based on today’s passages, what do you think John would say to him?

I want to end this with a word of hope. I know that someone reading this is going to get hit with a guilt trip right now. You’re thinking “I’m struggling with that sin, so obviously I’m not saved.” If so, you’ve missed my point entirely. A lost man doesn't struggle with sin any more than a fish "struggles" with the water in which he swims. If you’re struggling with a certain sin that doesn’t seem to go away, take heart. That’s exhibit A that you do belong to Christ. Keep working on it, and do what you need to do to improve. And eventually you’ll look back and see that he's carried you further than you ever thought possible.

Lord Jesus, sometimes it’s so disappointing to see how little progress I’ve made. You truly are the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness. I am soooooo glad of that!

[May 14]--Assurance, False and True

1 John 5:13

Remember when we talked a couple of days ago about repentance? I mentioned the controversy started by some teachers/preachers who taught that it’s possible for someone to believe in Jesus as their Savior and yet reject him as their Lord. Let’s talk a little more about that today, because it affects the aspect of soteriology we’re going to discuss, namely assurance of salvation.

How do you know that you’re saved, that you’re really going to heaven? You might say, “I walked down an aisle, said a prayer with someone, and I even got baptized. Isn’t that enough to know that I’m ‘in’?” Um, no. This is why I tried to emphasize before that it’s not the prayer that saves you, it’s the faith in Christ that saves you. That prayer, at best, is an official way to declare in your own mind and before all the earthly and spiritual witnesses around you as to what you’re doing, and it helps for you to understand exactly what’s happening. Those words are not some magical incantation that you have to get exactly right.

Let’s be clear here, like the Bible is: You're saved by grace through faith in Christ plus nothing. But how do you know that this faith is genuine? How do you know that you weren’t fooling yourself (and everyone else around you)?

That’s what we mean by the term assurance of salvation, and that’s where the controversy I mentioned comes in. Advocates of what they call “Free Grace” position (which claims that you don’t need repentance) say that all that’s needed is an acknowledgement of certain facts about Christ: He died for your sins, he rose from the dead, etc. Advocates of “Lordship Salvation” (like me) claim that there are some other criteria that need to be met. If not, then the Bible offers you no assurance.

The book of 1 John, like his Gospel, has an explicit purpose stated right there for you: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Yes, there are other issues, like Gnosticism (don’t worry about it if you aren’t familiar with it), but that’s his openly stated goal for this book. He wrote this so that genuine believers would know that they have eternal life. And as you read the rest of his letter, it's obvious that the converse is true as well: He wants to warn people who've fooled themselves to turn away from false assurance. He has three tests for you to take so that you can know that you’re actually a redeemed child of God.

First, there are right beliefs. Yes, that is necessary. Yes, we have a personal relationship with Christ, but that does include knowing certain things about him. For example, John says that we need to understand that Jesus came into the flesh from the Father. We also need to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.

Second, there’s the right love. In fact, this is the test that he harps on the most in his letter. It's impossible for you to belong to God and hate your brothers in Christ. You have to love your siblings in Christ, and you need to demonstrate it through practical service. If you don’t, no assurance.

The third is the right lifestyle. I tell you what, let’s get into that tomorrow, since that’s something that needs some time to do it any justice. I think we’ve gone into enough for us to absorb today, right?

Father, I believe that I belong to you. You’ve claimed me as your child, and I thank you. I want to show that, please.

[May 13]--A Work In Progress

Colossians 3:1-10

Yesterday we studied the difference between indicative and imperative statements. As far as God is concerned, we’ve been crucified with Christ and are now reigning with him in heaven—That’s indicative. Now we need to let that change us in our daily lives—That’s a command.

As you read the N.T. letters, especially Paul’s, you’ll see this pattern emerging: “X is true, therefore you need to do Y.” We’ve been justified (declared not guilty in God’s court), so now we need to cooperate with him in the area of becoming like Christ. This lifelong process is called sanctification. Literally it means “setting apart.” You were set apart for Christ positionally at the moment of salvation. He’s laid claim to you, and the Enemy's lost you for all time. Because of--and starting with--that one moment, the Lord's begun the process of setting you apart in how you live.

Today’s passage is a great example of what I’m talking about. When you’re studying the Bible, by the way, take note of the prepositions. Every word of God to us has been preserved for a reason, including “therefore,” “Since then,” “For,” etc. Notice the sentence structure here: Because you’ve been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. Notice that the process of becoming like Christ begins with your thought life. Your actions and words will follow your thought life sooner or later. It starts with saturating your mind with God’s truth. It’s just like yesterday, where Paul told us to consider ourselves as dead to sin and alive to God.

Then you put to death what belongs to your sinful nature, such as sexual immorality, greed, lust, etc. You also need to rid yourself of bad habits which the world tends to celebrate, such as malice, slander, and filthy language and (unjust) anger. What’s the next step? Well, it’s a law of physics as well as in the spiritual realm: Nature abhors a vacuum. You can’t just remove things from your life and expect it to improve. You have to “take off” the bad stuff and “put on” the good stuff, like compassion, kindness, humility, patience and forgiveness.

So how do I do this? Well, the first step is in studying God’s word on a regular basis. And no, listening to a sermon on Sunday morning does not qualify as “a regular basis.” We studied before how his word changes us, and there’s no growth without it.

Second there’s obviously prayer. You need to spend some one-on-one time with him, talking to him as well as listening—actually most of us probably need to listen a lot more than we talk. You need to ask him to point out areas of your life that need to be surrendered to him, and ask for his help in changing.

Third, you have to—you absolutely must—utilize the Church. Christ has given us his body to provide what we need: encouragement, accountability, and challenge. Most of the time that’s his method for pointing out cracks in my armor.

And finally you have to take the practical steps to change. If you have a problem with alcoholism, then set up an accountability partner to keep you sober. Stay clear of bars and other places where you drink. Way too often we treat sin like a sexy ex-girlfriend, someone we keep on our speed dial just in case we change our mind later. No, we need to treat it like a mortal enemy that’s stalking us.

If you were looking for some secret magical formula, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I just want to make something clear, though. I’m just as much a work in progress as any of you. My sins might be different than yours, but they’re no less serious. Now if you don’t mind, I need to go practice some of what I've preached. . .

Lord Jesus, from beginning to end I need you. I need you to save me, to guide me, to protect me, and to change me. Only you can do that. Just show me what I need to do, and please give me what I need to do it.

[May 12]--Well, I Declare!

Rom. 6:1-14

I’m a practical theologian, but I’m still a theologian, so a lot of teaching and preaching makes me wince. Most preachers are well-intentioned, but they need to be a little more careful in what they’re saying. For example, I’ve actually heard some of them tell their congregation that we need to “die to sin.” I understand what they’re trying to do, but their hermeneutics needs a little work.

What I’d like to introduce today is a bit of grammar, namely the difference between indicative mood and imperative mood. Please don’t zone out on me—This is really important, and apparently some Bible teachers can’t seem to get it either. Hey, you can get a leg up on some of them!

Here’s a refresher course for those of us who took High School English a long time ago (and didn’t really care about this while we were taking it). Indicative mood is used to say something is or is not a fact: “It’s going to rain today.” “My name is not Bill Gates.” In contrast, imperative mood is used to give a command to do something or not to do something: “Go brush your teeth.” “File these reports for me.” "Don't eat without first washing your hands."

So here’s a pop quiz. Which one is this: “Jesus died on the cross in order to pay the penalty for your sins”? And which one is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself”? Got it?

So let’s take a closer look for a moment at the passage for today. Do you remember what the term antinomian means? If you don’t, then don't feel bad: Most people outside of theological circles don’t either. But it’s a good word to keep in mind. Literally it means “no law”; it’s the nutty notion that a Christian doesn’t need to be concerned at all about his lifestyle. He can live a life of disobedience and still make it to heaven. Paul in today's reading is addressing the charge that his message leads to antinomianism. We’re saved by grace through faith in Christ plus nothing, right? So why shouldn’t I just trust in Christ and live however I please?

Here’s Paul’s answer in a nutshell: You can’t do that. No, he’s not saying (in this passage) that you shouldn’t do that. He’s saying that it’s impossible for you to do that, like it's impossible for you to lift a car over your head and fly into the air like Superman. Let’s take it piece by piece.

He starts out by presenting the charge: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” The “By no means” phrase is the strongest possible negative in the Greek language. There’s no exact counterpart in an English translation: The closest would be “HECK No!” without the editing.

But what’s his reasoning here? What's keeping us from sinning however we like? Notice the mood. He gives some indicative statements, like we did a couple of days ago—You died to sin, you were raised with Christ, your sinful nature was done away with once and for all, etc. All of these are factual statements. Nowhere in Scripture are we commanded to die to sin.

So what are his commands here? Count or consider yourselves as dead to sin and alive to God. You’re dead to sin, so act like it! Don’t let sin act like your master, because it isn’t! Be who you are!

Second, he commands us "[Do] not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires." Don't let sin control you. Don't listen to it.

And finally we're commanded to make an offering. Not a dead animal--God has no further interest in dead animals any more--but now (as we'll see in Chapter 12) he wants a living sacrifice. Because we're dead to sin and alive to God (fact) therefore we must offer ourselves no longer to sin but to the One who did all this for you. Your body (including your mind) is no longer to be an instrument of sin but rather an instrument in his hands. You belong to him now.

Let me submit the best illustration I’ve ever heard on this subject. Right after the Civil War, we officially passed a series of constitutional amendments that freed all the slaves and made them citizens. Slavery was now illegal anywhere in the United States. Blacks could now leave the plantation and go where they pleased. According to the Constitution, the highest law of the land, as far as slavery was concerned, a black man was equal to a white man. But leaving aside the shameful way whites treated freed blacks, did all the ex-slaves suddenly start acting like free and equal people? Of course not. A lot of them stayed on the plantation for years or never left at all; they'd been born on the plantation, and this was all they knew. Even if they were encouraged to leave, freedom was scary. So even though they were legally freed, it took a while for that reality to manifest in their daily life.

It’s the same with us. We were once slaves to sin, but now we’re freed. There’s a charter signed in Jesus’ own blood. We’re dead to sin and alive to God. Sin isn't our master anymore. Quite frankly, some days it’s hard to tell. But Paul’s admonition still stands: These things are true, so you need to act like it.

We’ll probe a little more into how to do this tomorrow, but for today I want you to fully grasp these truths: You are dead to sin and alive to God. Your sinful nature was crucified with Christ once and for all. Sin shall no longer be your master, because you’re not under the law but under grace. We’ve had a change of management. Once you’ve digested this truth into your inmost being, you’ve started on the road to being who you really are.

As Paul put it so well in another epistle, "[Let] us live up to what we have already attained."

Father God, I know that all these things are true, but it’s really hard sometimes to live up to it. Thank you that I don’t have to do this alone. You are with me, aren’t you?

[May 11]--Position vs. Condition

Heb. 10:14

Yesterday we talked about how God sees us in Christ, and that we’re identified with him permanently. But the Bible says a lot of things about me as a believer that I don’t see in my daily experience. In order to explain this discrepancy, I’m going to introduce you to a concept you might not be familiar with, but I assure you it’s thoroughly biblical.

It’s called position vs. condition, and this tension (not contradiction) is nowhere better found than in the verse for today's reading. As we read through the passages below, hopefully you'll see what I'm talking about. If something I say seems a little kooky, then read the passage that’s associated with it. Otherwise, read whatever you have time to absorb today. I realize that there’s a lot to go over here, and you’re busy people. But it’s very important that you and I agree that I'm making up absolutely none of this, that this is all completely and clearly based on what the Scriptures say. So here we go. . .

Your position in Christ has some of the following characteristics:
• As we saw yesterday, you’re crucified, buried, risen, and ascended with Christ.
• You’re dead to sin and alive to God. Sin has been done away with, once and for all.
• You’re an heir of God and a co-heir with Christ.
• You’re completely without sin, since you possess the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.
• You’re forgiven now and forever, and he’ll never bring those sins up again in terms of judgment or condemnation.
He’s with you always, every moment of every day, and he’ll never leave you nor forsake you.
You belong to Christ.
This determines your eternal home.
• This was all settled, once and for all, at the moment of salvation (or before, at the beginning of time).
This is completely dependant on who Christ is and what he did (and is doing).
• It has nothing to do with your performance. Nothing you ever do or fail to do, now or in the future, will ever change anything that has to do with the above statements at all.

This is in contrast to your condition:
You obviously still deal with sin. Once you think that you’ve got one under control, the Spirit brings another one to your attention that he wants to work on.
• Obviously you’re still living here on earth, not in heaven next to Jesus.
• Your condition can change on a moment-by-moment basis. You have to make the decision daily (or even more often) to do things God’s way instead of your own.
He’s provided the resources you need (his word, prayer, the church, etc.) but you have to choose to avail yourself of them.
• Your condition (as we’re discussing it here) is (at least partially) dependant on your performance.
• This determines how abundant a life you’re going to lead. On this depends lots of things like your joy, your peace, your sense of fulfillment, and your sense of assurance of your position in Christ.
If you aren’t doing things God’s way, then he’ll seem distant. The sense of his smiling presence won’t be there.
• If you’re not doing things God’s way, then as your Father, he can and will discipline you to get your attention. This can be as unpleasant as you make it, and it can be pretty harsh. It can include physical ailments, up to and including physical death.
• What’s at stake here? Not your eternal home but your eternal rewards.

So here’s how the two go together. For the position stuff, you have to take it on faith. You believe that Christ was crucified and rose from the dead, right? Well, the same Bible that tells you about that also tells you the things I listed as the first points. You might not feel like you’re dead to sin, but you have to trust God’s word that it’s true.

That's why I said that the one verse in Hebrews which is our main verse for the day encapsulates this concept perfectly. Talking about Christ, the author of Hebrews says that by one sacrifice (on the cross) he has perfected forever (position, past tense, a done deal already) those who are being made holy (something that's a process, a change, therefore your condition as I've used the term). If you say that your being made holy today somehow caused Christ to perfect you forever 2000 years ago, that makes no sense to me, unless you have a time machine stashed away somewhere. No, the only way that this verse makes sense is that the sign that he's already made you perfect forever--once and for all--is that you're currently in the process of being made holy.

And here’s the kicker: Your position will affect your condition. I’m not talking right now about commanding you to do anything. It’s a fact of the Bible, the same as Christ having risen from the dead. The fact that you’re dead to sin, etc. etc. will affect your daily life and how you behave. How? That’s tomorrow’s topic.

Lord Jesus, I'm absolutely blown away by what you’ve done for me and what your word says about what’s happened to me. I don’t always see it in my life, though. Please let me see it.