God wants you to have the best.
You may have heard the old adage, The good is the enemy of the best. This means that, often, people settle for what is good (which isn’t necessarily bad), but in doing so, they may actually miss out on the best. I got the feeling that this happened a lot in the course of Jesus’ ministry, even to the point where it was a source of personal frustration for Him.
Mark writes like a machine gun, with most events in the life of Christ lasting only a few sentences! Because of that, the first chapter of his gospel speedily takes us through several early encounters in Jesus’ ministry.
After His baptism, Jesus’ first public event in Mark took place in a synagogue: “They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” (vs 21-22) That last part has always amused me. Apparently, the teachers of the law spoke like wimps.
But the point is, the people were amazed at the way Jesus talked and preached. They hung on His every word. They were fascinated by His understanding of the Scriptures and the way He unfolded truth to them. They were in the presence of The Word, and His words were life to them.
In fact, a few verses later, Jesus told His disciples that this was the whole point of His ministry: “Jesus replied, ‘Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’” (vs 38) I almost thought that was a little odd. Have we spent so much time focusing on the social aspects of Jesus’ ministry (the healings, the feedings, etc.) that we have forgotten that wasn’t His primary purpose?
His primary purpose was to preach good news. Yes, when Jesus announces His ministry, He says, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (vs 15)
But right after that first public encounter in the synagogue where all the people were hanging on His every word, He drove out a demon—and the news of that spread quickly all over the region. That night, Mark says, “the whole town gathered at the door” (vs 33) where Jesus was staying. Everybody had come . . . to be healed. And from that time on, the crowds flocked to Jesus.
And, of course, Jesus had compassion on the people, and He healed them. But you can’t help but get the impression that all of this healing was a double-edged sword for Jesus. There was so much He wanted to tell people, but it seems few people cared about hearing His message. They were just looking for His healing.
Perhaps that’s why He gave the man at the end of today’s chapter such a “strong warning” not to tell anyone about what had happened. (Apparently, there’s even a threat implied in the Greek word.) He was increasingly finding Himself swamped with crowds . . . who were there for something Jesus didn’t primarily come for.
It’s not that Jesus doesn’t want people to be healed and fed. It’s just that those good things might be the enemy of the best thing God wants us to have. It won’t do us much good to have our “perishable” needs taken care of if that comes at the neglect of our “permanent” needs. You see, God can easily take care of the cancer and the poverty and even the grave. His bigger concern is taking care of our spiritual needs, our eternal life.
I think Jesus must have always been balancing the tension of giving the people what was good while hoping that it wouldn’t keep them from receiving what was best. For God didn’t come here to give us gifts, but to give us the gift of Himself.
And there is truly no better gift than that.
God puts Himself to the test.
I have always been intrigued by the story of the paralytic who was lowered by his friends down to Jesus through a hole in the roof of the house where Jesus was sitting. It stands out in the gospel account for the simple reason that it was the first (and last) time Jesus connected a healing with the forgiveness of sins.
This was quite a bit more meaningful in Jesus’ day than in ours. As you may remember from our trip through the book of Job, the prevailing theological view in Israel was that sickness was a sign of God’s angry displeasure. Thus, if there was something physically wrong with you, it could only be because there was something very spiritually wrong with you.
So, when the young paralytic was lowered through the roof to where Jesus was sitting, one thing must have been clear in the minds of the Pharisees who were gathered there: This guy was a sinner.
And that’s why Jesus’ first declaration to the young man was, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (vs 5) Lots of commentators suggest that Jesus said this because He knew that the man’s deepest need was to have his sins forgiven, and perhaps there is some truth in that. Our spiritual ailments are always more pressing than our physical ailments—or, at least they should be.
But whether the young man needed to hear of his forgiveness from the Savior, the people gathered there (and particularly the Pharisees) needed to hear that God was holding no grudges against the paralytic. His broken-down legs weren’t God’s punishment for sin.
Of course, in the minds of the Pharisees, to forgive sins was impossible for anyone but God. Likewise, to tell a paralytic to get up and walk would be impossible for anyone but God.
And Jesus was willing to put Himself to the test.
When you think about it, simply declaring forgiveness was pretty easy for Jesus. It didn’t require any kind of “evidence” to be demonstrated. In that moment, nobody really knew if the paralytic was forgiven before God. There was no way to verify that.
But whether the man could get up and walk could be instantly verified by all those who were gathered in the house. And if neither could be accomplished unless Jesus was God, then He could reveal that He really did have the power to forgive sins by healing the body of the paralytic.
And so He did. And that is so like God! He is even willing to put Himself to the test so that we may see the evidence of who He is and independently verify that He has told us the truth. He doesn’t ask us to just “take His word for it.” He provides tangible evidence for us to see and understand and take hold of.
As news of Jesus’ ability to heal had spread far and wide, I’m sure He also wanted people to know that He had something much more important than physical healing to offer. Because He was God, He was able and most interested in offering spiritual healing—and this is the kind of healing we are in need of the most.
The point of the paralytic’s story is still relevant to us today. Because God is able and willing to provide the spiritual wholeness we need, we can also be assured that we will one day have the physical wholeness we all desire. Both go hand-in-hand with God, and He put Himself to the test in order to prove it to us.
In this chapter, Mark recounts the story of a miracle that is also found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke—with one notable exception. In the other two accounts, the authors say nothing of Jesus’ emotional frame of mind during the course of this miracle. Only Mark records the feelings of Jesus. And it’s an important detail.
Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. (vs 1-6)
According to the Mishnah, the rabbis used one question to determine whether an action which constituted “work” was permissible on the Sabbath: Which choice preserves life? Of course, that’s what Jesus was alluding to when He asked which was lawful on the Sabbath—to save life or to kill.
The Pharisees were livid that Jesus restored health and life to a man on the Sabbath, yet they went out straightaway and began plotting how they would kill Him. Which choice preserves life? It might be comical if it wasn’t so sad.
And it was so sad that Jesus Himself experienced a visceral emotional reaction to the whole situation. Knowing their thoughts, and knowing what their reaction would be to what He was about to do, He became angry. But that soon gave way to a feeling of deep distress and sorrow.
All the people in the synagogue that day were standing in the presence of the Master Healer. They were standing in the very presence of God. One man with a shriveled hand was about to have his physical life restored to him, while a number of men with shriveled hearts were about to further cripple their spiritual lives.
No wonder Jesus experienced anger and then great sorrow. But notice for whom and what He experienced those emotions. He wasn’t angry about the man who had the shriveled hand. He wasn’t angry that sin had marred and twisted His beautiful creation in the life of that man. And why? Because He could do something about it. He was one hundred percent able to restore that hand to what it should have been.
But He was powerless when it came to the shriveled hearts of the Pharisees. Unless they were willing to open the door to Him, He was totally incapable of restoring their hearts to what they should have been. That’s what made Him angry. That’s what caused Him deep distress and great sorrow.
When you think about it, God grieves in the same way we do, although not for the same things we do. We also get angry and deeply distressed about the things we are powerless over. Think about it. We don’t grieve for broken arms. We don’t feel deeply distressed over gallstones or blurred vision. And why? Because we can do something about those things. We can fix those things.
But, like God, we grieve over the things we can’t fix. Things like cancer, Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and AIDS. We weep and gnash our teeth over those things because we are totally incapable of fixing them.
But God is not incapable of fixing them, and that’s why I don’t think He grieves over cancer or AIDS or shriveled hands. Of course, I don’t want to make it sound like God is insensitive to our feelings. Whenever we hurt for any reason, He is deeply affected. But He doesn’t grieve over those things like we do, because He has complete control over them. He can cure cancer just as quickly as He can restore a shriveled hand. He can reverse Alzheimer’s just as fast as He can restore sight.
God grieves over the things He can’t fix. Or maybe I should say, God grieves over the thing He can’t fix, because there is truly only one thing God can’t fix—the persistently-stubborn heart of a rebel. If we are determined to shut ourselves away from Him, then we have the power to do that. And, ultimately, there’s nothing He can do to remedy it.
For that, God grieves.
God inspires investigation.
Jesus says something very odd in this chapter as part of an explanation to His disciples of why He spoke in parables: “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those who do not know the secret, everything remains in parables, so that, ’seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand; lest they should turn, and their sins be forgiven them.’” (vs 11-12)
Hmmm, that doesn’t sound very nice. It almost sounds like Jesus is saying that God purposely conceals truth from some people so they won’t be saved! That would directly contradict 2 Peter 3:9—”[God] is patient . . . not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
So, what gives?
Actually, Jesus wasn’t the first person to say these words. He was actually quoting from Isaiah, where God told the prophet, “Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isa 6:9-10)
If these words are taken literally, they certainly sound as if God doesn’t want everyone to come to repentance, but that we are only pawns in some game He’s playing. That’s why I like this explanation of the passage given by Bible scholar Gordon Wong:
Isaiah 6:9-10 should be understood as a command urging people to return to God and be saved. The form of the commands are not to be taken literally. Rather, we should see a rhetorical use of persuasive irony here.
Imagine a rebellious son who stubbornly refuses to listen to his father’s advice to do his homework. Reverse psychology is sometimes used: “Alright, son. You don’t have to study. Why bother? Just laze around and waste your life. Don’t work hard, otherwise you might get accepted into Cambridge or Oxford and become a successful person admired by everyone, especially clever and pretty college girls. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”
Here a father uses the rhetoric of irony in the hope of persuading his son to do his work. The literal words may suggest that the father wants the son to laze around and do nothing. But a correct appreciation of the rhetorical irony indicates the opposite intention: the father wants the son to work harder. Could this kind of rhetorical irony be present in Isaiah 6:9-10? If so, then we should understand God’s real intention as being the opposite of what the words literally suggest. Just as a father wants his son to work hard, so God wants his people to listen and to repent.
Indeed, God wants His people to listen and repent. That—proper listening—is the theme that connects all the parables in Mark 4. Perhaps that’s why Jesus spoke in parables in the first place, not to keep people from hearing, but to enable their hearing. Maybe Jesus didn’t speak in parables to blind people, but spoke in parables because they were blind, and this method invited them to look again, to lure them toward the light.
Think about it. If a person has been living in a very dark cave for a long time, they would be instantly blinded if they were taken into direct sunlight, because their eyes would be incapable of handling that much light at once. Thus, instead of shining a great light at them, you would shine a very, very distant light that they might walk toward. And the closer they came, the brighter it would gradually get, so their eyes would have time to become adjusted to the light as it got brighter and brighter.
Maybe that’s the way it works with spiritual sight as well. The more we see, the more we are able to see. The less we want to see, the less we will see. In fact, isn’t that exactly what Jesus said a little later in the chapter? “‘If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear. Consider carefully what you hear,’ he continued. ‘With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” (vs 23-25)
In other words, to those who are open to hearing the truth or seeing the light, more revelation of the kingdom will be given. But to those who refuse to listen and see, even the revelation they have been given will prove ineffective. Our relationship to God, and thus our relationship to truth, is never static. It is either growing or it is diminishing.
God inspires investigation because He wants everyone to come to repentance. He knows our spiritual condition, and if we are hardened in our hearts, He will speak in ways that will arouse our curiosity or make us sit up and think. He knows just how to draw us out of the darkness and into the light.
And as long as we are willing, we will continue to discover more and more and more.
God dissolves fear.
If proper listening was the theme of Mark 4, then fear must be at least an indirect theme in Mark 5 (beginning with the final short story in the preceding chapter). As I read the familiar stories today, I found fear in all the expected places. But then, to my surprise, I also found it in places where I didn’t expect it. Where it didn’t quite fit.
For example, we’re all familiar with the story at the end of Mark 4—the story of how Jesus calmed the storm. One night, as the disciples headed across the water, a vicious storm arose, and the disciples were terrified. In a panic, they went to get Jesus—who was sleeping peacefully—and said the ship was about to go down.
Jesus got up and told nature to be quiet. Then, He asked His disciples, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mk 4:40) This is familiar to us. We remember these parts of the story. But it was the next line that got me. I hadn’t remembered verse 41, which says, “They were terrified.” What? They were terrified?! Of what?
First, they were terrified of the storm. And when Jesus got up and stopped the storm, then they were still terrified? Yes, except now they were terrified of Jesus instead of the storm: “They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’” (Mk 4:41)
Aha! The disciples had been so afraid of the storm that they hadn’t stopped to consider the possibility that they were in the presence of One who was more powerful than the storm. And if you fear the storm because you don’t have control over it, how much more are you likely to fear someone who does have control over it? All of a sudden, you might be thinking you’ve been terrified of the wrong thing all along.
How else would it make sense that the disciples were terrified after Jesus calmed the storm? I guess when Jesus asked them why they were afraid, and didn’t they know Him well enough to trust Him yet?, the answer was no. They were obviously a little unsure about being in the presence of so much power.
This pattern continued with the very next story at the beginning of today’s chapter—where Jesus healed a demon-possessed man in the region of the Gerasenes. This guy was obviously the town troublemaker. Mark described him this way: “This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.” (vs 3-5)
Wow. This guy sounds like a walking, talking storm. Nobody was strong enough to contain him. He tore chains apart like they were tissue paper. He obviously had the run of the country. He could do whatever he wanted whenever he pleased, and nobody could stop him. I would be afraid of a person like that. Wouldn’t you?
Now, in the course of the story, we discover that the man was possessed by a legion of demons—legion being a word that indicated the presence of thousands, not just one. And, of course, you remember how Jesus gave the demons permission to go into a herd of pigs who were feeding on the hillside, and they rushed over a cliff and drowned in the lake.
We remember the pigs. But what about what happened next? “Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid.” (vs 14-15)
What? They were afraid? Now that this wild, unpredictable, dangerous man had been calmed and subdued by Jesus? Now they were afraid? That doesn’t make sense, does it? Unless, of course, you start to wonder: Of which should I be more afraid—thousands of uncontrollable demons, or one man to whose authority they submit?
Yes, they were afraid of the demon-possessed man, for he was a total wild card, an unknown. But they were also afraid of Jesus, because to them, He was an unknown as well. He obviously had great power—and they weren’t so sure He was safe. So they asked Him to leave.
Two miraculous stories. And two stories where fear followed the miracles.
Actually, make that three stories. Mark immediately goes on to record the story of the woman who was healed when she touched the clothes of Jesus. This is also a familiar story to us. The woman had been suffering from unexplained bleeding for twelve years. She had exhausted her savings trying to find a doctor who could cure her. But nothing had helped.
But the woman had heard about Jesus, and on a day when He was passing by, she managed to get close enough to reach out and touch His garment. And immediately, she was healed: “At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ . . . Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet, trembling with fear, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Don’t be afraid. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.’” (vs 30, 33-34)
How many of you have ever wished for a miraculous healing—either for yourself or for someone you loved? And in all the times you have prayed for a miracle, did you ever imagine that if you got it, it would terrify you? Did you imagine yourself being afraid at the prospect of receiving God’s intervention? This woman had just been healed of a disease that had plagued her for twelve years. Yet, when the moment came, she trembled with fear at the feet of Jesus. Her faith must have faltered for a quick second, once she was face to face with Him, wondering if He would turn out to be as gracious and compassionate as she had heard. And, indeed, He was.
This story of the woman really holds the key to unraveling the fear of God in our hearts, that fear that can show up in unexpected places. It’s in verses 30 and 31:
At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’”
The rebuke of the disciples here reveals one of the most wonderful characteristics of our God: He is eternally sensitive to and aware of each one of His billions of children. In a spiritual sense, God’s heart has billions of people crowding against it all the time. And yet, He can still ask about each individual, “Who touched me?” He feels every pain, hears every cry, knows every fear. And out of the billions of people on the planet at any given moment, He knows your heart. He is aware of you.
This is the key to unraveling the fear of God in our hearts—and that is to know Him. As John wrote in his first epistle, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love casts out fear.” (1 Jn 4:18) In coming to know and understand the character of our gracious God, we will see that we have absolutely no reason to be afraid of Him. And, because God is more powerful than anything else we face in this life, we will also learn that we have absolutely no reason to be afraid of anyone or anything else. God is mighty and strong to save. He calms the storms. He casts out the demons. He heals our diseases.
So, the question Jesus asked the disciples in the boat that night was as much for us as it was for them: Why are you so afraid? Do you have no faith in Me? Do you not trust Me? Do you not know Me?
If you don’t know Him, then of course, the presence of all that power may be intimidating. But if you do know Him, then you know that, even in the presence of all that power, there is no reason to be afraid. Remember the all-powerful, all-loving, all-forgiving God that was revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ, and let His perfect love for you dissolve all your fear.
Give all your worries over to Him, for He is the One who cares for you.
God limits Himself.
I recently ran across this quote in a book by author Jack Provonsha: “[God's call to man] is a call and not a demand. God, in a sense, hazarded His omnipotence on the gaming tables of man’s freedom that one day He might receive it back as man’s gift of unremitting loyalty.”
Ever since I read that, I have been pondering the idea of God’s omnipotence versus His creatures’ freedom. It does seem to me that the two must be mutually exclusive. If someone is truly all-powerful, then technically, they cannot be denied. It is within their means to have whatever they want. Yet, if God is to grant true freedom to His creatures, then that must also include the freedom to reject Him, which is certainly something He wouldn’t want!
So it seems to me that, when it comes to our freedom of choice, God imposes limits on His own omnipotence. He will surely give us all of Himself, and He wants to do so, but He will not force Himself on us. Because of freedom, if we decide to have nothing to do with Him, He will respect that, even though it’s not what He wants.
I saw a bit of that in today’s chapter, didn’t you?
Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. “Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith. (vs 1-6)
Jesus had been travelling around the countryside for some time by this point, preaching the word, healing the sick, and casting out demons. He had even demonstrated the ability to resurrect people from the dead! Yet, in His own hometown, He couldn’t accomplish much of anything. And why? The people there had no trust in Him.
It’s interesting to think that the miracles Jesus was performing in some way involved a responsiveness on the part of the person receiving the miracle. After all, God is omnipotent, so He should be able to bring sight to blind eyes and cure leprosy and restore hearing with no problem.
But it appears that God won’t even force His healing on people who don’t want it. He is so committed to our freedom that He will even give us the option of whether or not we want to receive His blessings. (If we don’t, He is amazed . . . me too!)
God wants us all to be saved. He wants to give us all the miracle of His blessings and, most importantly, the miracle of Himself. But it appears that God doesn’t always get what He wants. Though He is omnipotent, He limits Himself and restricts the use of His own power so that it won’t violate our freedom to choose.
Bottom line? We have the ultimate power to say no to God.
That’s a little bit scary and a little bit wonderful all at the same time.
God won't rub your nose in it.
Not so long ago, we encountered this story of the woman with the demon-possessed daughter in the Gospel of Matthew. You may remember how we discovered that Jesus used His encounter with the woman to teach His own disciples about the unclean nature of their own hearts.
But I think there’s something else that is remarkable about God in this story that we didn’t have time and space to touch on last time, so I decided to write about it today. And that is: Even when you make a mistake, God won’t rub your nose in it. Whenever we come to God for help, He always responds. And He does it without a judgmental or condescending attitude.
This woman was a descendant of the Canaanite people, and many Biblical historians agree that it was the Canaanites who began the practice of devil worship. We know, certainly from all the Old Testament stories, that they were heathen and worshiped many different gods. They even sacrificed their own children as part of their devil worship.
So, should it be any surprise that a Canaanite woman finds her daughter possessed by a demon? How might we tend to respond to such a situation? Hey, you opened the door to the devil. You decided to worship him, so if you ended up with a demon-possessed daughter, tough luck! You made your bed, now lie in it!
That is never God’s attitude. He never responds to us with, “I told you so.” When we come to Him—no matter what condition we’re in—He responds with compassion and tender sympathy. He doesn’t rub our noses in our mistakes. Instead, He praises us for our faith.
So, it doesn’t matter what mistakes you’ve made in the past. It doesn’t even matter if the bed you’re now lying in is the one you made for yourself. God will not pour salt into your wound. Whenever we come to God for help, He always responds. That we come to Him is more important to Him than the condition in which we come.
God opens our eyes.
All of us are blind. Well, at least we all have blind spots—spiritual ones. Our physical sight might be 20/20, but every single one of us has spiritual vision that has been marred by sin, and sometimes, it takes God some considerable time and effort to help us see clearly.
But, as always, He is able.
I think that’s partly what this odd story of healing the blind man in Mark 8 is all about. When we think of the stories involving Jesus healing blind people, we don’t usually remember the one that had to be done in two stages:
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. (vs 22-25)
Why couldn’t Jesus heal the man with one touch? He had done it before. But, given the context of the surrounding discourse with His disciples, I think the healing of this blind man was symbolic of what was happening to the spiritual sight of the disciples.
Did you notice that, immediately following this story, Peter professed that Jesus was the Messiah? (vs 29) Yet, right after that declaration, he took Jesus aside and began to rebuke Him because He was talking about how He was going to be killed. Obviously, the disciples’ vision of what the Messiah was supposed to be was still a bit like “trees walking around.” They couldn’t quite see things clearly yet.
I think this is how each one of us regains our spiritual sight. I know from my own experience that I can see a lot of things “more clearly” now than I could ten years ago. And I’m sure that, given another ten years, I’ll look back on some of my “insights” from these days and think they were pretty blurry.
But this is the wonderful thing about how God opens our eyes. He comes to us in our blind condition and knows just how to restore our spiritual sight gradually. He doesn’t get impatient or angry with us. Instead, He meets us where we are and brings us along in our understanding little by little.
As long as we’re not determined to stay in the dark, one day we will inevitably find ourselves singing that classic song, I Can See Clearly Now. So, don’t worry if things are still a bit blurry for now. And, for heaven’s sake, don’t get impatient with others around you who may still be seeing “trees walking around.”
If God can afford to be patient while He opens our eyes, so can we!
God gives evidence to secure faith.
As I read the account of the transfiguration again in today’s chapter, I was suddenly struck with how the whole event was nearly a mirror of the crucifixion (with significant differences). And I thought it was really interesting that this revelation was provided to the disciples within a few days of the final events of Jesus’ life.
Consider the similarities:
- Both events happened on a hill/mountain.
- Both events included Jesus and two other men.
Now consider the differences:
- At the transfiguration, Jesus was enshrouded in dazzling light. At the crucifixion, Jesus was enshrouded in darkness.
- At the transfiguration, the Father spoke of His love for His Son. At the crucifixion, Jesus cried out to the Father, asking why He had been abandoned.
It wouldn’t be long after that John (the only one of the three disciples to experience both events) would be with Jesus on another hill, watching his beloved Messiah die on a cross. I wonder if, during that whole ordeal, he had occasion to think back to what he had witnessed on the Mount of Transfiguration.
If he didn’t, I think John might have missed the whole point. In fact, I think one of the main purposes of the transfiguration was to provide the evidence the disciples would need to secure their faith through the trying times that were right around the corner. When Jesus was falsely arrested (and allowed Himself to be taken away by the mob), perhaps they were supposed to remember the glory He appeared with at the transfiguration. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, perhaps they were supposed to remember the voice of the Father, declaring that Jesus was His Son.
God does this so often—more often, I think, than we actually realize. He gives us the evidence we need to secure our faith through tough times even before the tough times hit. Our problem is, we often have a very short memory! If we would take time to think back to our own “mountaintop” experiences, we might view our darkest days very differently.
And maybe that’s the whole point.
God takes care of His children.
This is one of the famous passages of the Gospels: “People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’” (vs 13-15)
There has been much debate about these verses over the years. What, exactly, did Jesus mean about receiving the kingdom of God like a little child? Does that mean He wants us to never grow up? Does that mean He wants us to remain relatively uneducated and ignorant? What, exactly, does Jesus value in children, and why are those qualities ideal for the kingdom?
Well, if God only wants people in His kingdom who never learn anything or never ask questions, then I don’t think He would also tell us in Scripture to reason with Him and to put Him to the test. (Indeed, one thing children are known for is asking questions—tons of them.)
I think one of the primary hallmarks of little children is unqualified, unlimited trust. Thus, little children (who have responsible parents) don’t spend their time worrying about how to make ends meet, how to put food on the table, how to survive the elements, or even how they will spend the day tomorrow. These questions never enter their minds. No matter what happens, they know Mom and Dad will work it out.
But even though this trust is all-pervasive, it is not without foundation. Whether they are conscious of it or not (and I would suggest they are not), these children have come to trust their parents based on the accumulative, daily evidences of their parents’ care for them. On the other hand, I have dealt with children whose parents are not trustworthy and haven’t cared for them properly . . . and that childlike trust is not to be found. Those children are terribly insecure.
The childlike trust God is looking for, the kind that can receive the kingdom, is trust which is based on the knowledge that God takes care of His children. It is trust that doesn’t constantly wonder, How will I control everything today? It is trust that doesn’t worry, What if something bad happens to me?
It is trust that believes in God’s ability and willingness to care for His children, and it is trust that expects God to do just that—take care of us—in His own time and in His own way. And like little children, we may not always get everything we think we want or need. Things might not always turn out the way we expect, but even in those times, we can rest assured that God is taking care of us.
To have this kind of unshakable faith in God is to possess the kingdom.
God and fear are enemies.
Once again, the familiar story of the bold Jesus in the temple: “On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, ‘Is it not written: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations”? But you have made it a den of robbers. The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.” (vs 15-18)
Here, I think Scripture reveals the problem with fear: It ultimately turns us into killers. Maybe not immediately. And maybe not in ways we could imagine. But when a heart that is centered on self becomes fearful and threatened, it will ultimately attack the perceived object of danger.
That’s the problem with fear. And isn’t fear the main problem with sin? Wasn’t that the experience of Adam and Eve? Immediately after their choice to rebel against God, “the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’ He answered, ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.’” (Gen 3:8-10)
The immediate result of disobedience and rebellion was fear. And why? God had never given them one reason to be afraid of Him. He had never done one thing to scare them. He had never threatened them or frightened them. Yet, as soon as they sinned, they became afraid of Him.
It is that fear (and the resulting separation that it has put between us and God) that God has been working to overcome. This is what the plan of salvation is all about—removing the fear of God that sin has put in our hearts, helping us see that there has never been any reason to be afraid of Him.
And why is fear bad? Because it leads us to a survival-of-the-fittest mentality. It leads us to a kill-or-be-killed outlook on God. That’s certainly what happened with the Pharisees. They came to the point where they thought that if they didn’t kill Jesus, He was going to “kill” their whole way of life. Caiaphas, the high priest, himself said, “Do you not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish?” (Jn 11:50)
This is why God and fear are enemies. The two cannot ultimately coexist together. Because if we are afraid of God, we will ultimately try to kill Him. And, while He has proved that He is more than willing to die for us, a creature who is hell-bent on killing God is, at the end of the day, only cutting himself off from his only Source of Life.
Thus, fear looks to murder, but ends in suicide instead.
And God, who is life eternal, is the antithesis of that.
That’s why His mission is to get rid of fear (before it gets rid of us).
God knows what counts.
You might be able to make the case from Scripture that God engages in a little “fuzzy math” from time to time. Perhaps. After all, when it comes to marriage math, one plus one equals one. But that’s only at the beginning. Given enough time, that “one plus one” can add up to five, ten, even twenty. (Just ask the Duggars.)
How does that math work?
I guess the same way it works in today’s chapter of Mark: “Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.’” (vs 41-44)
Really? She put more into the treasury than all the others? Combined? I suppose Jesus wouldn’t be the first choice to run your next capital campaign at church. If He said two mites (worth roughly $1.50 in today’s economy) were worth more than the thousands others had put into the treasury, we might be left wondering if God can count.
Or perhaps we’re the ones who can’t count. Perhaps what God is revealing here is that, while He may not count in the same way we do, He knows what counts. And in the Kingdom of God, the generous, sacrificial heart of the widow was worth more than any amount of money that could be put into the treasury.
How quickly we forget that God knows what counts, and that what He sees as important is usually the opposite of what we think is important! For we look at the outer appearance, but God looks at the heart. That means that even if we do “good works” all day long, His attention is still directed at what’s in our heart. And if we do “bad things” all day long, His attention is still directed at what’s in our heart.
And often, what appears on the outside may be no true reflection of what’s on the inside.
I’m glad that God knows what counts. We judge and label and categorize, but God sees each one of us individually. That was also evident in this chapter, as it contains one of my favorite stories and sayings of Jesus. When one of the teachers of the law had an exchange with Jesus, He ended by saying to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (vs 34)
From all Jesus had said before, it seemed like the teachers of the law were some of the furthest people from the kingdom! Yet even they were not all painted with the same brush by God. He saw each one of them individually and was always looking at the heart, in order to detect any sign of response to the Spirit.
God knows what counts, and He’ll never lump us in with the crowd. We can be sure that He looks at each one of us individually, searching our hearts, and knowing us thoroughly. In His kingdom, things are valued and measured and weighed differently than they are in the kingdoms of this world. What we give doesn’t matter as much as that we have a generous spirit. What we say doesn’t matter as much as that we have a compassionate heart. Perhaps what we do doesn’t matter as much as that we have a willingness to listen for direction.
So don’t worry about how things look on the outside. God knows your heart, and hopefully, He could say to each one of us, “You are not far from the kingdom!”
God knows what He's talking about.
There is a lot of debate about this chapter and the meaning of all the “signs” Jesus talked about. Was He referring only to the coming destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.? Was He referring to the “end of the world” yet to come in the future? Was it a combination of both?
Truthfully, after reading many commentaries and opinions on this chapter regarding those issues, I am only left with far more questions than answers. Aside from ratcheting up my interest in studying prophecy, I’m afraid I have nothing enlightening to say about the time of trouble Jesus described.
But one thing He said in this chapter has already been fulfilled, down to the very last detail: “‘Do you see all these great buildings?’ replied Jesus. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’” (vs 2)
To the disciples, this must have been an incredulous claim. Nothing was as magnificent as the temple in first-century Israel. The Jewish historian Josephus recorded that the gold plates covering the outside of the temple were so brilliant that when the sun shone on them, they were blinding to look at. And in all the places where gold wasn’t covering the building, pure white marble made it appear, from a distance, that there was snow on the temple.
How could anything so formidable and forbidding be utterly destroyed—especially in a way that not one stone would be left on top of another?
Well, according to Josephus, when the Romans took Jerusalem (some 40 years after Jesus predicted this), a careless soldier accidentally dropped a single torch in one of the temple buildings, and the whole structure quickly became engulfed in flames. Big deal, right? But the fire was so hot, that all the gold began to melt—what must have been millions of dollars worth of gold—and flow down between the stones.
Before the fire had even gone out, the soldiers had already begun to pry the massive stones apart to get at the gold in the crevices. They did a very thorough job—not one stone was left on top of another. The gold, the decorative pride and joy of the temple, was also the cause of its total destruction.
Jesus was absolutely correct in His prediction about the temple, and that means we can trust that God knows what He’s talking about—even when we have a hard time figuring out exactly what He’s talking about! When Jesus says there will be a time of trouble like the world has never seen, He knows what He’s talking about. When Jesus says there will be signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth, He knows what He’s talking about.
And, best of all, when Jesus says He’s coming back to get us and take us to be with Him, He definitely knows what He’s talking about. We’re all going to live through times of trouble—some may be greater than others. But God says to hang on tight, be alert, and watch because when we least expect it, He’s going to come back again.
And God knows what He’s talking about.
God knows you and loves you.
As I read the chapter for today, I found myself wondering for the first time, Why did Jesus tell Peter that he would deny Him? Obviously, it was impressive that Jesus knew that he was going to do this ahead of time, even down to the timing of the whole thing. But why tell Peter?
Could Jesus have been hoping, by bringing it to Peter’s attention, to keep him from doing it? Was He simply demonstrating His amazing prophetic ability? Did He want to rub Peter’s nose in his failure before the fact?
Actually, I don’t think any of those are the reason. Almost the opposite, in fact. I think Jesus told Peter ahead of time that He knew what was going to happen because He wanted Peter to know that He knew and that it didn’t change the way He felt about him one bit. I think He wanted Peter to know that, even though He knew every dark part of his heart, He still loved him.
And it wasn’t just Peter. Jesus told all the disciples that they would fall away (vs 27). He let them know that He knew they would all abandon Him. But that didn’t change the way He treated them—then or after the resurrection. The next time He saw them, He was still treating them with the same mercy, grace, and generosity He had always shown them.
God knows you and (still) loves you. I don’t know about you, but this is very encouraging to me, because there are a lot of dark places in my heart—places that I wouldn’t want anyone else to know about, places I would be embarrassed to have revealed. God knows all about those places, and it doesn’t change the way He feels about me.
He knows me and He loves what He knows.
But I also love that God doesn’t sugarcoat what He knows. Just as He was honest with the disciples about the ways they would come up short, He is honest with us about the places in our lives that need work. To me, that part is equally important, because it is a further indication of His love.
If He didn’t love us, He wouldn’t care what we were—good or bad. But because He loves us, He wants to assure us that not only does He know about the things that trouble us the most about ourselves (and loves us just the same!), but also that He is able to change the things that trouble us the most about ourselves.
Sometimes the change comes slowly, as in Peter’s case. But while it does, we will only encounter one attitude from our gracious Heavenly Father, and that’s love. He knows you and He loves you.
You don’t have to hide from Him.
God doesn't defend Himself.
If there’s ever been anyone in the history of this world—heck, in the history of the universe!—who is completely and totally innocent, it’s God. If there’s anyone who should stand up and defend Himself, it’s God.
But it seems He’s not interested in that: “The chief priests accused [Jesus] of many things. So again Pilate asked him, ‘Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.’ But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.” (vs 3-5)
This doesn’t seem to be anything new for God, though. He doesn’t often make claims regarding Himself—although when He does, He always backs up those claims with evidence. More often than not, however, He never even makes the claim. As in this case, where He didn’t proclaim His innocence, He preferred to let the circumstances do the talking.
That’s right. He wouldn’t claim to be the king of the Jews, but He was about to prove He was the king of the Jews by His triumph over the grave. In fact, He was about to prove that He was the king of the universe by humbling Himself to death—for only a person who holds all power could voluntarily lay it down.
Instead of claiming to be the Messiah, Jesus was prepared to prove it. Instead of defending Himself with words, He was determined to defend Himself with evidence.
For me, this is one of the most important things about God. Although He could easily ask us (and expect us) to believe what He says for no other reason than that He said it, He doesn’t operate that way. He always gives us evidence to consider, so that we have the opportunity to see and think and decide for ourselves.
It’s important to God that we reason together with Him. That’s one of the reasons He doesn’t defend Himself.
God will provide just what you need.
I love some of the little details that jump out at me as I read and reread these familiar stories. Today, the journey to the tomb: “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?’” (vs 1-3)
Had you ever noticed that before? It’s so easy to just read over this part of the story because we “know” what’s coming next. But let’s take a moment to put ourselves in the shoes of these women. They had bought spices in order to anoint the body of Jesus—their Master, their Messiah, the one they had put all their hopes in. Surely their hopes had been dashed at the death of Jesus, just as the disciples’ had been. Yet, they were determined to carry out this final act of love, reverence, and respect for the one they loved so much.
So, after the day of worship was over, they went to buy their spices and early the next morning, they were headed toward the tomb. As they went, it suddenly occurred to one of them: How are we going to move that stone?
The stone they were referring to was the large stone that was customarily rolled against the entrance of a tomb in order to seal it. I don’t know if you’ve ever stopped to think very much about these stones before, but they were huge. They were much too large and heavy to be moved by even a few men, so a system of levers was used to move them around. Some Bible scholars have estimated that the stone that sealed Jesus’ tomb would have weighed one-and-a-half to two tons—which is the approximate weight of a midsize car.
No wonder those ladies were nervous about how they would move that stone! But that wasn’t all. The Roman seal affixed to the stone secured the tomb—making it even harder to move—and to break it was a capital offense, punishable by upside-down crucifixion. Anyone—even these women—trying to move the stone from the tomb’s entrance would have broken the seal and, thus, incurred the wrath of Roman law.
I’m sure that all of these considerations must have been part of that question: Who will roll away the stone for us?
I can certainly identify and sympathize with them, can’t you? It is simply in our nature to ask questions. When we are confronted with a situation, the first thing we start doing is asking all the questions. What if this? What if that? How will this work out? What if this happens? There is that tendency within us to want to work out all the possible scenarios ahead of time, to figure out what will happen and what we need to do.
And perhaps it’s that inherent tendency within us that makes the very next sentence in the story so amazing and remarkable in its simplicity: “But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.” (vs 4)
You mean they spent that walk to the tomb worrying and wondering about how they were going to move the stone, and when they got there, it had already been done for them? They didn’t have to figure it out after all. What they needed had already been provided for them—even before they knew it.
What a sweet and simple lesson this is, and all along, it has been waiting for us right here in the midst of the Easter story. God knows exactly what we need, and He has already provided it for us. The women didn’t have to worry about how they were going to roll away the stone, and the truth is, we don’t have to worry about how our needs will be provided for either.
The great message of Easter is not just that we have a risen Lord, but it is what kind of a risen Lord we have! We have a Lord who is intimately involved in our very nearest and deepest concerns. We have a Lord who knows what we need and is ready, willing, and able to give it to us. In many circumstances, as with these ladies that Easter morning, we find that His provisions are in place before we need them or even know that we need them.
No matter what we face in life, we don’t ever have to worry, wonder, or be anxious. If God can take care of rolling the stone away—which was, to Him, a small detail—then He is certainly capable of providing for us: even the small things. Especially the small things! So no matter how big or small your need, trust God to take care of it for you.
Two thousand years after that first Easter morning, He is still moving stones.