Mark

Tuesday Devotional: Mark 13

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Watch!  We are commanded to watch.  But what are we to watch?  Are we to watch and predict the timing of the end?  Are we to evaluate current events to gain insight into the timing of the end?  Are we to erect fortifications meant to protect the things we treasure in this world from the coming wrath and destruction associated with the end times?

No.  We are commanded to watch for other things.  We are commanded to be on our guard for those that make predictions and proclaim the end before it has been revealed by the living God.  We are commanded not to rely on our own strength and words to defend ourselves from the inevitable persecution we will encounter and endure as disciples of Jesus.  We are commanded to watch how we are trusting in the love of Jesus as we are cast out and abandoned by those closest to us, including our family.  We are commanded to guard against those coming in the name of Jesus who promote and glorify the miraculous works of their own hands and not the Christ.  We are commanded to watch out for the inevitable corruption and desolation of the House of God as the message of Jesus is replaced with a message of self-glorification.  Most importantly, we are to watch and pray that when the Son of Man comes like a thief in the night we are prepared to stand before the throne of the living God with sincerity of heart to declare our complete devotion to Jesus Christ and his commands to which we have submitted our entire lives.  Watch!

The Resurrection: Tombs to Trails

empty-tomb

It seems that year after year as the Easter and Christmas holidays draw near, one predictably sees a program or two concerning the newly found proof or evidence of the “real” Jesus. While these newly found discoveries never hold up, a popular topic of research is the search for the physical body of Jesus Christ. While historians and scholars are more willing now than in the past to affirm the historical existence of Jesus Christ, without belief in the resurrection, one is left searching for the body of the man who was crucified on the cross and subsequently died. The mystery that will remain a mystery to those unwilling to accept the story of the resurrection is that the location of the tomb of Jesus Christ has been lost to history, and no one can conclusively establish where the tomb actually is.

This mystery is made even more profound when one considers the cultural traditions of the Jewish people regarding the burial of prominent public figures. Such sites are extremely important. The celebration and glorification of those figures after their death, and the memorial to them in the hearts and minds of future generations is an invaluable treasure to a culture that so often throughout history has had very little to hold onto. From to the Gospel narratives, we also know that the body of Jesus was not simply thrown into an unmarked grave to be forgotten by future generations. The body of Jesus was buried in the tomb of an upper-class Jewish citizen, Joseph of Arimathea. His followers knew exactly where the tomb was, and they visited the tomb after his burial.

Mark 15:42-47:

It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid.    

John 20:1-2:

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” 

Consider what a profound effect Jesus had on the Jewish people in general, for believers and non-believers alike. It is impossible to believe that if the life of Jesus did indeed end with his death on the cross, his followers not only defied their cultural practice of honoring the dead but more unbelievably, forgot the location of the tomb altogether.

While the tomb of Jesus has been lost to history, what has not been lost is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We do have plenty of proof that almost immediately following the death of Jesus, the disciples moved their eyes from the tomb of Jesus to the trails yet to be blazed in his Name as they set off to make disciples of all nations, baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The disciples viewed the tomb as trivial in the presence of the reality of the risen Lord, as well as the job that lay ahead driving them to spread the Gospel to those yet to have heard.

In the presence of the dead body of a prominent figure buried in a prominent location, the history of the Jewish people would lead us to believe that the tomb would not only be remembered and marked but that it would be celebrated and preserved. However, in the presence of the resurrected Christ, the tomb becomes nothing more than a stepping stone in order to reach the greater intended heights established by Jesus Christ that the disciples set off to reach. We all know the phrase “history repeats itself,” and we might expect this in the Jewish treatment of the tomb of Christ. However, in this instance, history did not repeat itself. In this instance, the disciples contradicted history and set off in a direction that would ultimately rewrite history.

 

Spiritual Gifts: Healing

gifts

For the next four weeks, we will examine the role of spiritual gifts in our Christian walk. Just as the baptism of the Holy Spirit has been debated throughout church history, the nature of spiritual gifts has also been a topic of much debate. This reflection series will outline four of the most debated spiritual gifts that often follow a baptism by the Holy Spirit. There are other gifts, such as prayer; however, for the moment we will only discuss four. The four spiritual gifts are:

  • Teaching
  • Tongues
  • Prophecy and Vision
  • Healing

All four of these gifts have a core purpose in common but as we will see they are unique from each other in the way they are used. This week, we reflect on healing.

In the same way that Prophecy and Vision come with stereotypes and judgments on the part of those outside of the Church, the idea of “healing” has also gone quite misunderstood. The gift of healing, like Prophecy and Vision, was a major part of Jesus’ ministry and the Apostles’ teaching and was well represented in the early Church. For us to dismiss it as something done in the past but not available to our present Church is illogical.

As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give. -Matthew 10:7-8

The gift of healing is for us in the Church to possess now, not simply to reflect back to in nostalgia as something done by our forefathers. While some are gifted with the gift of healing in dramatically physical ways, most people go their entire lives without seeing an actual physical healing in person and assume the absence of frequent resurrections and blind-to-sight healings as proof that the gift of healing simply does not exist anymore.

To assume this is to completely misunderstand the purpose of healing taught by Jesus for His Church to exercise. The purpose of the gift of healing is to express the impact of God. This impact is a visible, public transformation from old to new. However, this transformation from old to new cannot be reduced to simply the transformation of the physical body. In fact, Jesus Christ was adamant that our physical body means very little. The purpose of the numerous physical healings that Jesus conducted in the Gospels was not to discourage or intimidate by comparison. Those healings were conducted for Christ’s ministry and the people of that time, to fulfill the prophecies that illustrated the nature of the Messiah’s return, which would be characterized by physical transformation:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
     and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor. -Isaiah 61:1-29

While physical healing and transformation is still present in the Church today and some are gifted in this area, the true healing available to all those professing faith in Jesus Christ is of a different nature.

Jesus Christ was clear that healing is impossible without his presence and his word. In his Word lies the power of God to transform and save the lost.

2When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”

 The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.

After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”

 He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.” -Mark 9:25-29

While most will never see a dead body raised physically, the sharing of God’s Word to someone outside of the presence of God is more powerful than physical resurrection. Anyone raised from the dead in this world still faces the challenge of sin. However, sharing the Word of God that results in a life born anew and a new creation in Jesus Christ represents the ultimate healing. There is joy in this world when a dead body is raised. However, according to Jesus, there is immeasurable rejoicing in Heaven at the resurrection of a life dead in sin, reborn and resurrected with Christ and transformed in his image.

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. -Luke 15:1-7

Physical healing means absolutely nothing as long as the sin within the body is unaddressed. The priority of Jesus’ healing targeted sin, not the body. Finding God in the words of Jesus Christ and His gospel is the true pearl, the true prize, the true goal. In this way, the Church today has been blessed with the privilege of spiritually raising the dead to life through the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me. -Philippians 1:18-26 

The Impossible Religion: Power

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This reflection series,  “The Impossible Religion,” reveals five specific problems that people have with the gospel of Jesus. These impossibilities arise when Christianity is a religion to achieve, rather than simply the “good news” of grace and redemption that will naturally transform us. Christianity outside of Christ’s redemption is in fact impossible, but with God nothing is impossible. For the next five weeks, we’ll go through Scriptures from five different areas of the Bible in order to confront these impossibilities:

 

Impossible Power (Mark 16)

In Mark 16, what Jesus had been promising all along had finally come true.  The stone was rolled away and what he foretold would happen actually happened.  He was risen.  He was the Christ.  He was who he said he was.

If, that is, you believe the Gospel account.

What happened on that third day is amazing, yet for many, impossible to believe.  The idea that Jesus could resurrect himself and then appear for forty days teaching, speaking, eating and living in human form seems like a myth or fairytale: fun to talk about but foolish to have faith in.

The world we live in simply does not work that way. When we die, we die.  But if you read the Gospel of Mark for fifteen chapters before reaching that final sixteenth chapter, you will have already encountered a Jesus who claims to be removed from this life and beyond our understanding of it.  Throughout each of the four gospels Jesus consistently tells us that he is “The Life.”

Initial reactions to the resurrection often take two forms, one from the side of belief and the other from non-belief. Both are incorrect in their foundations.

For many Christians, the reading of the Passion narrative, ending in the empty tomb, is a tradition to honor and a story to recite.  Reading about the Resurrection is similar to watching the end of “Sleeping Beauty.”  How nice, we think, how romantic. Wouldn’t it be nice if life were really like that?

To my knowledge, no one has ever finished watching “Sleeping Beauty” saying, “Isn’t it great that that happened!  How amazing! I wish I could have been there to see it!”  If someone were to react that way, we would respond to them in judgmental, sympathetic and annoyed disbelief.  We all know that “Sleeping Beauty” is a fairytale and we end the discussion there.  We aren’t wrong for doing so, because we know that the story doesn’t claim to be true and to change our lives forever.  It’s a story.  That’s it.

There are many self-professing Christians who read Mark 16 in the same way they watch “Sleeping Beauty.”  They read the story and feel nice and warm inside, but it never transcends the pages to impact their real lives.  The purpose of “Sleeping Beauty” is to entertain, to tell a made-up story.  The Gospels are different: they proclaim truth and promise change.  The apostle Paul confronts this attitude in 1 Corinthians 15, telling is that if the tomb wasn’t actually empty, if the Resurrection did not occur in fact, then everything we do as Christians is not only without purpose but is harmful, foolish and pitiful.  Living life under the belief that “Sleeping Beauty” is a true story would be something to be ashamed of, not proud.  No one, at least to my knowledge, has faced death joyfully professing confidence in the story of “Sleeping Beauty.”  Yet thousands, including eleven of the twelve original disciples of Jesus Christ, have died full of joy in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the story of the empty tomb.

Somehow, belief in the cross is easier than belief in the empty tomb.  However, to stop at the cross makes the life of Jesus the story of a failed and dishonest teacher that does not deserve our attention or worship.   There are many other teachers and wise men throughout history who did not make the outrageous claims of deity that Jesus did, and if he were not actually who he said he was we could follow the teachings of any one of them.  However, to believe in the empty tomb means to acknowledge the life of Jesus Christ as he proclaimed it.  He called himself “the way, the truth, the life,” even “the resurrection and the life,” and to believe in Jesus Christ means to believe in life beyond the tomb.

For non-believers, the main difficulty in believing in the empty tomb originates with distrust in the Gospels.  This distrust which I myself displayed for many years comes from ignorance in the facts behind the four Gospel narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Non-believers see the Gospels as simply legends that were written many years after Jesus died, and the stories, including the Resurrection, came out of the desire to create a version of Jesus that was more what the writers wanted him to be and less what he actually claimed to be.

If one takes this view of the Gospels, we have to ask several questions.  First, when were the Gospels written?  Given the span of time separating the death of Jesus and the first account of the Gospels, was there sufficient time for “myth” or “legend” to arise?  What would be the motivation for the writers to write such an account the way they did?  Lastly, what if any incentive would there be in doing that for them personally?

First up is the issue of time.  According to the most current historical and archaeological research, the general consensus is that they were written much closer to the life of Jesus than what most people believe.   Since we are focusing on the Gospel of Mark it is sensible to discuss the most widely accepted view in its original date of composition.

Most scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was written close to 20-25 years after the death of Jesus.  For those of us outside the historical evidence arena, this might still seem like a long time passed beyond the actual events being recorded.  However, when we look at the written accounts of prominent historical figures, like Alexander the Great, we find that the earliest account of his life was written close to 300 years after Alexander’s death.  Yet, we believe that Alexander the Great lived and did the things we are taught he did.  1 Corinthians 15 has Paul receiving the story of Jesus– living, teaching, being crucified and rising from the dead on the third day– within five years of the crucifixion.  Five years!  In the historical context, that is barely a moment. To recount stories with accuracy given such a short period of elapsed time between the actual events and the recording of them is more than plausible.

Secondly, we must consider motivation and incentive.  How would writing the Gospels affect the lives of the authors as individuals?  Some imagine 21st century televangelists with white-toothed smiles and expensive suits, lining his pockets.  From this perspective, the motivation to write these stories would be to materially benefit their own lives. But this is to completely neglect the realities of their world.  For these men, to identify as a Christian was a death sentence.

To be Christian during the time when the Gospels were written meant to be threatened from all sides.  Due to the horrifying persecution from men like Nero or Diocletian, Christians were motivated to construct the catacombs in Rome and the tunnel dwellings of Cappadocia, where they could feel at least a small sense of security in their worship and Christian lives. It is in this environment that the Gospel writers wrote their “stories.”

Not only were they heavily judged and persecuted outside of Israel, they were also fought from within as their Jewish brethren attempted for years to squelch the worship of Jesus Christ.  Eventually one of the most notable preachers of the Gospel, Paul started as a prominent persecutor of the church.   We now know through the historical records that all but one disciple of Jesus were executed for their belief and continued support of the Christian church and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

By writing the Gospels, these people were literally risking their lives, and many lost their lives.

No matter who you are, your life will be defined by what you believe about the empty tomb.  Those who believe will understand that not even death is to be feared.  Those who do not see this world as all there really is.   The power of the Resurrection of Jesus is there for everyone to see and find, but the question to each person is, do you want to find it?

Tuesday Devotional: Mark 1

bibleRead Mark 1:21-28

The world is a mystery that has inspired and driven humanity, from the scholar to the young child, to question and ponder the difficult questions it poses.  In seeking answers, we all develop our own understandings or reach our own answers to satisfy our curiosity, no matter how unreasonable they may be.  Our many questions lead to comparatively much shorter list of answers. In a landscape so barren of sure foundations, to adopt a position of authority and confidence on any topic is received with suspicion and criticism.  Unless, that is, the answers to our questions are accompanied by both power and undeniable truth.

As Jesus began to speak in the Capernaum synagogue, both of these elements were present.  His teaching came with an authority that confidently knew, not a presumptuous attempt spurred by curiosity.  He spoke with an understanding of a time before any of our problems existed.  More convincingly, his teaching came with the power to reverse the problems of this world that demand our attention and inquiry.  In his being was simultaneously the answer before the problems and the answer to the problems.  The teachings of man cannot access the before and after, and thus are left in infancy.  The teachings of philosophers and religion can begin to understand, but are left far short of the ability to confidently explain and resolve.  The synagogue of Capernaum was filled with certainty.  The God of the ages was present. There was no doubt for those watching and listening that this was new, this was different.  This was not of man.  When the Holy Spirit is unleashed in the minds of men there is nowhere else to look.  The work of the Holy Spirit demands attention, and receives it, because the power and truth of almighty God always comes with healing.  The fear of the Lord does not terrorize, and the people in that synagogue were not feeling terrorized.  Their fear of the Lord was that of awe and amazement.  In the presence of something so supernatural there is no other reasonable human response.

Above All Else: Joy

(Find the rest of the series here, here and here.)pen-and-paper_400x295_39

Today, we seek joy…

Joy when we discover Him in the storm.

For most of my life as a Christian the word “joy” was a word I would rarely use to describe my Christian identity.  More appropriate words might have been words like “duty,” “routine,” “confusion,” “obligation.” Rarely anything in the vicinity of “joy.”

In my Christian life, there was little to take joy in.  God was a distant, silent God that I did not know personally. The experiences of Christian life were nice, but far from transforming.  I had a wonderful upbringing in a Christian household. My joy in being Christian had everything to do with my family and nothing to do with God and his son Jesus.

Lacking the joy of following God, I was surprised and confused to find, when reading the Bible for the first time, that God would prefer it that we stop following altogether than to follow joylessly.  I always thought that God desired obedience above all else and cared little whether we liked obeying Him or not.  It was shocking that God viewed my motivation to serve him and the way I enjoyed said service as the highest importance.  Why did he care?

As I continued reading I saw, over and over, that God viewed his relationship to us like a marriage.  The more I started to see how he viewed our relationship, the more I realized that I had been a quite unenthusiastic and uncommitted bride (Christian) to one particular bridegroom (God). The more I realized that God desired to have a relationship with me like that of a married couple, the more I realized that it would be more offensive to me if he didn’t care if I lacked joy in being with him.  To approach such a close relationship with passivity implies disinterest and indifference, ultimately worse than hate.  At least hate brings a passion to fight, defend and protest.  To approach God from such apathy is to express the perfect anti-love.  I began to realize that this “anti-love” fit me.

At the same time I began to understand those Christians who showed such joy in being “married” to him.  Their reactions to God’s presence were like they were embracing a loved one after long absence.  This sense of anxious, unbridled enthusiasm was not only common to all of these people, but also came naturally. Not forced, and not in response to a demand.

It’s so easy to lose this sense of joy in Christian life.  In the world we live in that continues to take more than we are able to offer, there comes a time that, in terms of a newly married couple, the honeymoon is over and real life begins.  We still define ourselves by our faith, but less and less so the way we did during the honeymoon.  Honeymooners are easy to pick out of a crowd because they cannot get enough of each other. But even after the honeymoon, people that love to be married are easy to spot because there is a sense of peace, joy and happiness in their togetherness.  To them, being together is far superior to being apart.  The question all Christians should continue to ask themselves is, “Can I get enough of God?”  Or, on the other hand, “Have I had enough?”

Remember Bartimaeus? Just days away from the cross, as Jesus journeyed to Jerusalem, he was confronted by a voice from the crowd.  The scream from the crowd was from a blind man named Bartimaeus, and his reason for screaming was that his faith in the healing power of Jesus was demanding a healing and a life-change on the spot.  Here is a man who would not let Jesus go without an encounter.  The jeers and judgmental thoughts of those along the roadside, including the disciples, did not intimidate or deter him.  He wanted Jesus and nothing would stop him.  And when he received his healing, he followed Jesus.

Bartimaeus needed Jesus. He cried out for Jesus. He was overjoyed when he found Him. Are you?

Above all else, in and out of storms, fires, humdrum days and nights, excitement and stillness, remember the joy of salvation. This God comes with us into life, makes Himself known there, and wants nothing more than joy in His presence.