Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Jesus Follows a Pattern

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Mark 1:9-15
Imagine that an older man decided he wanted to be more charitable. So one cold winter's night he loaded up an old sleigh he had with gifts, hitched up his horses and drove all over town delivering gifts to young children. If this happened, what would you think? Chances are that you immediately made some sort of connection to Santa Clause in your mind. Santa is such a well known part of our culture that I don't have to explain to you how this old man's story connects to him. We can all see how the old man is following this well known pattern from our culture.
In the above passage Jesus is doing something similar. He is following a pattern of behavior that was extremely well known to the Israelites but that is maybe not as well known to us. You see, for the Israelites the most significant event in their national history was their exodus from Egypt. It was truly the birth of their nation. They would tell their children and their children's children the story of how God rescued from Egypt much like we make sure our children are taught about the American Revolution, the Boston tea party, and Paul Revere's ride. All Israelite children should have known that after the ten plagues the people if Israel passed through the waters of the Red Sea, wandered in the dessert for 40 years, and then entered the Promised Land. So it is no coincidence that Mark tells his readers that Jesus passed through the waters of baptism, was driven into the wilderness for 40 days, and then began preaching about the coming kingdom. Jesus is following a well known pattern in order to make a point. Jesus came to earth to bring about a new exodus.
In the historical exodus God saved the people of Israel, who were powerless to save themselves, from slavery to the Egyptians. In this new exodus, Jesus will save all of God's children from slavery to sin, because we are also powerless to save ourselves. By His baptism Jesus is not repenting of His own sin, for he never sinned, but he is repenting as a representative of all mankind. He is showing us that the way to salvation lies through repentance. Then the Holy Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted. Unlike the nation of Israel, which fell into sin repeatedly resulting in 40 years of wandering in the dessert, Jesus overcomes the evil one and avoids sin. Then he re-enters the Promised Land and begins to preach about another "Promised Land" the coming kingdom of God.
I think Mark's original readers would have picked up on this pattern that Jesus is following right away. Jesus is leading a new exodus. He is showing them that this world is not what it was meant to be. The Promised Land was not all that they hoped it would be. They had traded slavery to the Egyptians for slavery to sin, and their sin had messed everything up. It was time for a do-over. It was time for a new exodus... one which would solve their sin problem once and for all. This is to be His mission in life: to set God's children free from slavery to sin and to bring them safely into the Promised Land (heaven). It's really rather beautiful when you step back to look at it.
The good news for us today is that Jesus was successful. He paid the penalty for all of mankind's sin on the cross. He defeated the power that sin had over us by His death and resurrection. And He has promised to return one day to take all those who believe in Him to the Promised Land. Until then God continues to rescue helpless sin-slaves. If you haven't surrendered your life to Christ, the good news for you is that there is still time to repent and believe. It is to you that Jesus is saying, "The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Today is the day of salvation! Believe. If you have already made a profession of faith, then remember that you have been set free. You are no longer a slave to sin. Christ defeated the power it had over you. You are no longer a slave to shame. Your past sins have been blotted out by the precious blood of Christ, so live a life that is in line with the great grace that you have been shown and the great freedom from sin that you have been given. Live like someone who has experienced a great exodus and is waiting to enter their Promised Land. Don´t turn back to Egypt; don´t turn back to sin. Rather live for God and set your hope on the grace to be brough to you when Jesus Christ comes again (I Peter 1:13).
For further reading...
  • Romans 5- This passage talks about Jesus following a pattern set down by Adam, though Jesus gets some things right that Adam really messed up.
  • Romans 6- And it just so happens that the very next chapter talks about our slavery to sin.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

John the Baptist: Herald of the Promised King it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”— "a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Mark 1:2-8
Every king needs a herald... someone to go before him to announce the greatness of his arrival...someone to make sure that the people have been prepared...that there will be a reception fit for a king. This is no less true of the promised Messiah. The coming of this Messiah had been foretold many times for more than a thousand years before Jesus. So there was great expectation, especially in Jesus' day, for the coming of the great king from the line of David who would restore the people of God to their rightful place. But Mark weaves Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 together in verse 2 of his gospel to remind his readers that the Messiah wasn't the only one who was prophesied to come. For over five hundred years now the people of Israel had awaited the herald, one like Elijah (Malachi 4:5-6), who would announce that the time of the coming king was finally at hand. This herald would make ready and prepare the way before the Messiah. Let's look and see what the herald has to teach us.
First, let's look at his actions. John the Baptist appears out in the wilderness offering a baptism of repentance in the Jordan River. This action was rich with history for the people of Israel. God had long ago rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. He led them through the waters of the Red Sea on dry ground and through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land (God's promised inheritance for His people). Then they passed through the Jordan River (also on dry ground) to enter the Promised Land. This story of the Israel's exodus is the context for understanding what John the Baptist is doing. By his actions John is saying, a new exodus has begun. We have fallen short of living like the people of God should, so repent and let's start over. The king is coming, now is the time to repent before he gets here. We want him to find us washed of our sin and living rightly when he gets here. So prepare yourselves for the coming of the king! Come back to the wilderness with me. We will pass through the waters again in repentance and in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. God is doing a new thing. Now the people of God will receive the true promised inheritance.

What a powerful message! You know this message is still relevant today. The Bible tells us that King Jesus is coming yet again at some time in the future to take his new people into their Promised Land (Heaven). So make ready and prepare yourself for the coming of the king is at hand! What do you need to repent of in order to be prepared for the king's arrival?
Second, let's look at his words, and what powerful words they are! John says that he is unworthy to even stoop down and untie the straps of Jesus' sandals. The ESV Study Bible notes that untying the straps of the master's sandals was usually the job of a low servant in the household. You see, the roads and well worn paths of that day were often littered with animal waste and other filth, so this was an undesirable job to say the least. In fact, Jews were not supposed to ask their Jewish servants to do this task. This disgrace was reserved for the already unclean Gentile servant.* John uses this everyday activity from their culture to make a powerful statement about his place in relation to Jesus. He says that he is not even worthy to be Jesus' lowliest servant. That is how high Jesus is above him. Let me ask you, do you serve the Lord with this kind of humility?

John continues by comparing their baptisms. "I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” What a wonderful thought, to be immersed not in water but in the Spirit of the living God! This is truly a salvation experience, to know God and be immersed in His presence. And this is what Christ has done, He poured out the Spirit for all believers on the day of Pentecost and He continues to pour out the Spirit into the lives of those who believe in Him today. I can say from experience as a redeemed sinner that nothing in this world compares to knowing this kind of intimate fellowship with God. And this isn't something that you can secure for yourself. Only Jesus can give this to you. If you haven't yet experienced it, then I encourage you to accept Jesus as your Savior. Surrender your life to God today by following the simple formula in Romans 10:9. And seek after God. He will not run from you for His Word tells us to, "Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you" (James 4:8- English Standard Version).
For further reading...
  • Exodus 1-14: Read the story of the Exodus.
  • Joshua 1-3: And the story of the crossing of the Jordan River.

* ESV Study Bible note on Mark 1:7-8. Crossway Bibles, Wheaton, IL. 2008.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

I just don't feel close to God like I thought I would...

Come near to God and he will come near to you.
James 4:8
As a youth pastor I sometimes have teenagers come up to me and say something like, "You know Lance, I just don't feel as close to God as I thought I would. I got saved a few months back (or a few years back) and I just don't feel any closer to God." Generally, I respond by asking the student if he is spending regular time with the Lord. Is he reading his Bible and praying everyday? Almost always the answer is no.
Scripture gives us a very clear teaching on this matter. If we come near (approach, draw near, pursue) God, then He will draw near to us as well. I don't know why this is so difficult for us to grasp. It isn't just teenagers that struggle with this; many adults, including myself, continue to struggle to have regular quiet times and then wonder why we aren't closer to God. Somehow we think that a close relationship with God just happens without any hard work. We don't expect this to happen in any other area of life. We don't expect relationships to just blossom without  ever spending time with the person. We don't expect to have increased knowledge of math without studying. We don't expect to suddenly acquire better basketball skills without practicing. And yet, once we become a Christian we somehow think that we are going to experience a deep relationship with God, knowledge of God, and skill at discerning His will without ever investing any time or energy developing them. It is absurd and frankly angering.
There are some parts of the Christian life that are automatic. The Bible tells us that when we become a Christian we become a new creation (II Corinthians 5:17). The Holy Spirit comes to reside in us (Ephesians 1:13) and we are given a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26-27). Most new Christians sense a greater intimacy with the Lord at this time. But as Christians we have a responsibility to develop this new relationship with the Lord, our knowledge of Him, and our skill at handling His Word over time. In fact, when we stop to think of just how much God has pursued us, it is embarrassing that we should struggle so much to simply spend time with Him.
Scripture tells us that before the foundation of the world God was working out His plan to pursue and save us from our sin (Ephesians 1:4-5). He took on flesh and suffered and died the worst imaginable death for us, even when we were opposed to Him. Over the course of thousands of years He carefully revealed His nature and His will to His prophets and apostles and had them write this revelation down. Then He raised up scribes to painstakingly copy and preserve this revelation for future generations. The Bible was copied by hand for thousands of years before the printing press was invented. Because this process was so slow and costly, it was very rare for individuals to personally own any of the books of the Bible. Churches had Bibles, but generally individuals didn't. Then when the Roman emperor Diocletian decided to wipe out Christianity by destroying all the Bibles in the whole world, many Christians chose imprisonment, torture and even death rather than reveal where Bibles were hidden. Much later, more Christians were martyred for translating the Bible into English. The Roman Catholic church didn't want the Bible to be translated into the common language but men like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale wanted every poor farmer in England to be able to read the Bible in their own language.
Today, we have this precious book, this love letter, that God has so providentially worked through the lives and deaths of His saints to put into our hands. Most of us have two or three or more, and we completely ignore the great privilege we have to read it on our own. We don't read it every day or even every week. Instead, we wait for Sunday so the preacher can tell us what it says. We take God's self-revelation for granted. We take the blood of His saints for granted. We ignore the amazing right we have to approach the throne of grace in prayer won for us by Christ on His cross, and then we dare to question why we don't feel closer to God.
The answer is simple. You don't feel close to God, because you aren't. You aren't close to God because you aren't pursuing Him. And it seems pretty clear to me why we aren't doing these's because we don't want to. I think it can be said that according to the above verse, you are as close to God as you want to be. The truth is that we would rather watch TV, and listen to music, go on Facebook, and do whatever else we spend all of our time doing, than spend time with God. No wonder we don't know Him. No wonder we aren't close to Him. This isn't rocket science. God has promised that if you draw near to Him, He will reciprocate. It isn't always easy. You can't do it for five minutes and expect earth shattering results. You have to persevere and spend time with God even when it doesn't feel like He is there. Trust His promise. Keep at it. Read your Bible, pray, study with other Christians, and sing His praises. Come near to God and He will come near to you.
For further reading...
  • Spend 10 minutes alone with God. Just you, Him, and your Bible. If you don't know where to start reading. Try Psalms or any of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John).

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Mark: Opening Lines

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God...
Mark 1:1

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."* Chances are that you know exactly what book opens with this famous line. I have never read it but even I know it. That just goes to show you how impactful and important the opening line of a book can be. Not only does it set the scene and the tone of the entire book, but it can very quickly give you an idea of the author's purpose. Unfortunately, we do not always give Scripture the careful reading that we give great works fiction. Let's correct that today as we look at the opening line of Mark's gospel.

First, a little bit about the author and the book. We believe that Mark's gospel was the first of the Biblical gospels to be written and that it was penned roughly thirty years after Christ's death. This dating is important since John, also called Mark, was not one of the disciples or an apostle of Jesus and probably therefore was not a firsthand witness to many of the stories he recounts. This dating establishes that he could have known others who were firsthand witnesses on whose testimony he based his book. Indeed, the Biblical record bears this out. John Mark was a cousin of Barnabas (Col. 4:10) who joined Barnabas and Saul on their first missionary journey (Acts 12:25 & 13:5). Mark also had a relationship with the apostle Peter. When an angel rescued Peter from prison he went directly to a church meeting being held at the house of a Mary who was John Mark's mother (Acts 12:12). We also know that Mark spent some time in Rome with Peter (I Peter 5:13). It is likely that Peter supplied him with the majority of the details he needed for his gospel at that time.**

Now, how does Mark choose to begin his gospel? He says that it is the "beginning of the good news about Jesus." The Greek word for "good news" is where we get our word "gospel," but Lane helpfully points out that this word was not first used by Christians but by the dominant culture of the time. Lane points out that "for the Romans it meant 'joyful tidings' and was associated with their worship of the emperor as a god. The emperor's birthday and accession to power were celebrated by festivals across the empire. The reports of these festivals were called 'gospels'" (Lane, p.42). So the power of Mark's choice to use of this word to speak of Jesus' arrival on the scene would not have been lost on his first century readers. Mark is very clearly saying that a new day has dawned. A new king has come, a king whose coming to power is good news for the world. In fact, Mark says that this is just the beginning of the good news about Jesus. He has much to tell us!

Next, Mark tells his reader that this Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. Some Bibles translate "Jesus the Messiah" as "Jesus Christ." This is fine because Christ was not Jesus' last name. Christ comes from the Greek word which was meant "messiah", so these two translations say essentially the same thing. The Jewish hope had long been that God had promised to send a Messiah, a Savior for the Jewish people. The term Son of God has clear overtones of Jesus' divinity but was also used in the Old Testament in reference to kings so it also, at least in part, points to God's promise that this Messiah would be a king from the line of David. God had promised that the Messiah would be a king over all kings. He would restore God's people to their place of prominence in the world and set the world right by squashing injustice and protecting the innocent.

Mark doesn't pull any punches. He tells us immediately that this is who Jesus is. The rest of his book will endeavor not only to prove this to us but also to unpack all the implications that this "gospel" has for our lives. What impact has Jesus had on your life, and when was the last time you celebrated the good news of Jesus' coming? When was the last time you endeavored, like Mark, to tell someone that good news?

For further reading...
  • Identity Crisis- An interesting post about the opening line of Paul's letter to the Romans.
  • Acts 13:13, Acts 15:36-41, Colossians 4:10, & II Timothy 4:11-Read about how Mark caused a little bit of a controversy among Paul and Barnabas by leaving their missionary trip early. But, Scripture also makes clear that Mark and Paul were later reconciled.  

*The opening line of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
**The Gospel of Mark by William L. Lane. Eerdman's Publishing Co., 1974. from the New International Commentary on the New Testament. p.21.