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Jesus has come to be abandoned, but he will never fail (Mark 14:26–52) — July 18, 2011

Jesus has come to be abandoned, but he will never fail (Mark 14:26–52)

You will fail.

That’s not a popular message. The Atlantic recently featured an article by Lori Gottlieb entitled “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” in which the author explained that parents are afraid to let their children fail, because they’re afraid it will damage their self-esteem. The result is that their children are unable to adjust to the anxieties and difficulties of life outside of their parents’ umbrellas. After years of working with college students, I know firsthand that this is true. Parents are terrified that their children may fail and even be unhappy sometimes (gasp!).

Jesus, on the other hand, knows his disciples will fail him. Rather than shielding them from the fact, he tells them to their faces that they are weak and pathetic sheep.

Before Jesus was betrayed and crucified, Peter never struggled with self-esteem. He was a self-assured individual, not afraid to assert himself in front of Jesus. So when Jesus warns all the disciples, “You will all fall away,” Peter is not happy. Where is Jesus’ faith in me? he thinks. He announces, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” Rather than backing down, Jesus gets in Peter’s face. “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” Unfortunately, Peter’s self-esteem bubble still hasn’t been popped, and now the other disciples begin asserting their loyalty as well.

Their failure begins at Gethsemane. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John (his inner circle) deep into the garden. At this point, Mark writes, he “began to be greatly distressed and troubled.” The hour of his death has drawn near, and whatever is about to take place is overwhelming Jesus. He tells his inner circle, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” They are to stay alert and keep their eyes open for trouble.

Jesus prays on his own for a while, then returns to his disciples—and they have all fallen asleep. Jesus singles out Peter, telling him, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Twice more he leaves them to pray, and twice more they fall asleep.

As if this weren’t enough, a mob approaches them, led by Judas, one of Jesus’ closest friends. Judas identifies Jesus by greeting him with a kiss—a horrible act of betrayal! Chaos ensues; Jesus is seized and arrested, swords are drawn and swung around wildly. “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me?” Jesus protests. They are treating him like a common criminal.

As soon as his disciples realize that Jesus will not be resisting arrest, Mark records, “they all left and fled” with their tails between their legs. Most shameful of all is the desertion of a young man who would rather run away naked than stay with his Lord during his darkest hour.

The failure of the disciples is total. They begin the evening by boasting of their loyalty, then fall asleep while their Lord suffers and desert him when confronted by a mob. Their boasting only aggravates their shame.

Were it up to our own strength, you and I would abandon Jesus as quickly as his disciples do. “The flesh is weak,” and we are afraid of what other people can do to us. You and I have nothing to boast about.

God is leading us to esteem not ourselves but Jesus. At the centre of these events, we are allowed to listen in on his “loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). He calls out, “Abba! Father! All things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me!” He pleads with his Father to take away the “cup of the wine of wrath” (Jeremiah 25:15) from which rebels against God are forced to drink. No doubt his words “watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” are not meant merely for his disciples but himself. He resists temptation and chooses to follow the will of his Father, conceding, “Not what I will, but what you will.”

Each of Jesus’ disciples failed to “deny himself and take up his cross” (Mark 8:34). None of them submitted himself to the will and authority of God. But Jesus has done it perfectly. He is the only man who has.

You may think that you are a loyal and faithful servant of God. But you are much weaker than you think; you are easily tempted away from doing his will. This is why you need Jesus. He sought another way—any other way—to accomplish the mission God gave him. But he never wavered in his commitment to doing what his Father required. If you trust him instead of yourself, his goodness and faithfulness is what God sees when he looks at you. He doesn’t focus on your failures but on the success of his Son, who became a man to represent you and become “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:9).

God knew you would fail him when he chose to save you. That’s why he gave you Jesus.

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Jesus has come to give himself, even for his unfaithful disciples (Mark 14:12–25) — June 23, 2011

Jesus has come to give himself, even for his unfaithful disciples (Mark 14:12–25)

One of my greatest fears is that, as I grow older, I will harden into a particular shape. What I mean by that is this: I’ve seen so many people who, as they age, become very rigid in their outlook on the world. An older gentleman has already seen enough of the church and theology that he’s decided where he stands, and no one will shake him from his dogma. An older woman has decided that Political Party A is the cause of all that’s wrong with the country, and no amount of reasoning will change her mind. Another older man complains incessantly about the “kids” who are so disrespectful; he’s convinced that this is the root of evil in society, and don’t you try to disagree with him. To be old and unteachable is one of the saddest fates I can think of. (And truth be told, many people don’t wait until they’re old to become unteachable.)

One particular shape we can harden into is that of a bitter and fearful person. I wish I could say I don’t see this much, but I do. This is a person who’s been burned in the past, betrayed by someone she trusted. So now this person builds a wall around herself, keeping out anyone and anything that might pose a threat to her safety. She’s under lock and key; she doesn’t want to be hurt again.

Jesus, too, was betrayed and abandoned by his closest friends. How did he respond? Did he harden into a fearful person, surrounding himself with a protective shell?

We’re nearing the end of the last week of Jesus’ ministry before his death. Mark relates the story of how Jesus prepared to celebrate the Jewish Passover festival. Just like his preparations to enter Jerusalem (Mark 11:1–6), Jesus has everything planned out. He tells them to look for a man carrying a water jar, which would have been unusual since that was the responsibility of a woman or a servant in that culture. They find the man, who shows them a guest room that is ready for them to use. Whether or not Jesus has arranged this in advance is not clear; the point is that he is orchestrating the final week of his life. Jesus isn’t walking into a deathtrap—he knows exactly what is taking place.

So when they begin celebrating the Passover, Jesus warns them about what is coming: “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” His betrayer will not be a random member of the crowd but one from his trusted inner circle. I’m sure this was not easy for Jesus to know. How would you respond if you discovered one of your treasured friends or family members was looking for a way to hurt you?

When his disciples hear these words, they are devastated. Mark records that they begin asking Jesus, one after another, “Is it I?”

Think about that for a moment. This tells us that Judas is not an aberration. He is the betrayer, sure, but it could have been any one of the other disciples. They are all weak and vulnerable; under the right circumstances, they might be the ones who hand Jesus over to his enemies. Jesus is surrounded by unreliable, unfaithful friends. He confirms, “It is one of the twelve.”

Jesus also says, “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” It has always been God’s plan that Jesus will be betrayed by Judas. From the foundation of the earth this was ordained to take place. Yet Judas is not acting as a puppet; he is entirely responsible for his actions. Jesus has known his betrayal is coming, and he knows that Judas is perfectly happy to be the betrayer.

So how does Jesus respond? Does he hold his disciples at arm’s length? Does he refuse their company? Does he do his best to protect himself so he won’t be hurt?

No. Instead, Jesus takes the Passover bread and breaks it. He says to his disciples, “Take; this is my body.” The bread is a symbol of his own body that will be broken for them. Then he takes a cup of wine and gives it to all of them to drink (even Judas!). He tells them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”

Jesus responds to betrayal and unfaithfulness by allowing himself to be broken and poured out for those who will abandon him. His bloody death inaugurates a new covenant, better than the covenant that came through Moses. With this new covenant, God promises, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.…They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquities, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:33–34).

Jesus promises that a new kingdom is coming. It is so close that he says, “I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” And to bring his disciples into this kingdom, God will change their hearts to know him and to love his law. He will forgive them for their sin, for their rebellion against his reign.

That is the beauty of the gospel. Jesus’ disciples have done nothing to deserve this awesome gift. He gives his very self on behalf of traitors and cowards—on behalf of you and me. We have wounded him and killed him, but he invites us to his table as his dearest friends.

Jesus has come to announce the last days, so stay alert (Mark 13:32–37) — May 25, 2011

Jesus has come to announce the last days, so stay alert (Mark 13:32–37)

Well, May 21 came and went, and it turns out that Harold Camping was wrong. Jesus didn’t come back on that day. And no, he didn’t come back “spiritually” and secretly either, as Camping now claims (in yet another statement which contradicts Jesus’ words; see Matthew 24:26–27).

When you hear arrogant preachers like Camping announce that they have cracked a secret Bible code to unlock the date on which the end will come, you can know at once that they are either liars or fools. Jesus said so.

Jesus now shifts to a question that is a hot topic even today: what is “that day and that hour” in which he will return to the earth? Some commentators believe he is still talking about the destruction of the Jerusalem temple that would occur in 70 A.D., but there seems to be a transition away from that topic (Jesus begins by saying “but concerning…”). Remember, after he predicted the destruction of the temple (a singular event), his disciples asked him, “When will these things be?” (plural). They had more in mind than just the temple. Throughout Mark’s account of Jesus’ life, he has announced that God’s kingdom is coming. His disciples expect Jesus to set up this kingdom and rule over Israel, placing them in positions of power (Mark 10:37). When he announces that the temple will be destroyed, they’re probably assuming that this is part of the process in which he sets up his kingdom.

In a way, they’re right. When the temple is destroyed, it is an act of judgment on the religious leaders of the Jews and their failure to recognize the Messiah whom God has sent. Jesus will be vindicated in his claim to be Messiah, and his reign as God’s anointed King will be firmly established. This is part of what’s going on in Mark 13:24–27.

However, Jesus will not return to set up an earthly kingdom when the temple is destroyed. That will not take place until long afterward; in fact, we are still waiting for it. When Jesus talks about the destruction of the temple, he promises it will be within a few decades (Mark 13:30), and he tells his disciples that it will be preceded by a sign—the “abomination of desolation” (13:14). But now, when describing “that day or that hour” when he will return, Jesus doesn’t give any specifics at all! “Concerning that day or that hour, no one knows,” he tells them, “not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Not even the angels know when it will be. And during his earthly ministry, not even Jesus knows! God the Father is the only one who knows when the time will be.

Why is this? Why has God revealed so much to us yet hidden from us this important piece of information? I think the answer is revealed in the next few verses as Jesus tells us how to respond.

His message is absolutely clear: “be on guard, keep awake…stay awake…stay awake…stay awake!” Why? “No one knows…you do not know…you do not know.” He tells a parable about a man who goes away on a journey and leaves his servants in charge of his house. Apparently the man forgot to bring his cell phone, because the servants have no way of knowing when he’ll get back. So they need to stay awake, because he could return in the middle of the night, and they need to be ready for his arrival.

What does it mean to “stay awake”? It means to be on alert. You fall asleep when you think things will okay for the next few hours. You don’t fall asleep when you think that at any moment, everything around you will change.

To fall asleep means that you’ve bought into the lie that the world is going to keep on going as it always has. It means that you’ve bought into the lie that Christ won’t come back, that human institutions and banks and businesses and governments are permanent fixtures, that everything around you is stable and your future plans are all but certain (James 4:13–17). It means that you have bought into the values of your culture—its emphasis on human wisdom or careers or family or money or entertainment or comfort or food or sex—thinking that these values are an eternal standard for what’s really important. You are groggy, sedated, asleep.

To stay awake means that you recognize that all of this could be undone at any moment. Christ could return, and you don’t know when. This means that every day is the last day. By withholding from us the exact date when Christ will return, God the Father has shown us that we are already in the last days, and that we cannot count on anyone or anything other than himself. “All is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).

I don’t know about you, but for me, this is really hard. I settle naturally into the mindset that things will keep going like they always have. My life really isn’t going to change all that much in the coming years. Frankly, I find it depressing. I see how broken and unrighteous the world is; I see the sin that grips me; I see many reasons to lose hope. But Christ’s return is a game-changer. Everything will be upended when he overthrows all human kingdoms and sets up his own eternal kingdom in their place.

Today is one of the last days. And then he will come.

Jesus has come to announce his reign, so don’t trust in human institutions (Mark 13:24–31) — May 19, 2011

Jesus has come to announce his reign, so don’t trust in human institutions (Mark 13:24–31)

Deluded evangelist Harold Camping has predicted that the end of the world will begin on May 21, 2011, which is two days away from the time I’m writing this. If you’ve been reading the last few installments of Four Minutes in Mark, you’re correct in guessing that I’m not too worried about “prophecies” like this.

Besides, just as Jesus predicted, the end of the world came in 70 A.D. Sort of.

Jesus has announced that the Jerusalem temple is going to be destroyed. His disciples are shocked that such an impressive monument and the religious institutions it shelters could be swept away. So they ask him, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?”

Now, we’ve seen that Jesus does answer their questions, but his answers are deeper than they anticipated. What his disciples don’t realize is that Jesus’ kingdom won’t fully arrive when the temple is destroyed. Rather, the destruction of the temple is a signal indicating the end of the Jewish priestly system; it indicates that Jesus’ reign has been inaugurated, that as the Messiah he has fulfilled the Old Testament “types”—the historical people, regulations, and events which pointed toward his coming. But his kingdom won’t fully arrive yet—and it still hasn’t to this day.

After a period of intense suffering during which the destruction of Jerusalem is imminent, Jesus tells his disciples, “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” If this sounds like the end of the world, it’s supposed to! In fact, these powerful words would have been familiar to the disciples. Many of the Old Testament prophets used similar images to prophesy God’s judgment of Babylon, Egypt, Israel, or the world as a whole (see, for example, Isaiah 13:10; 24:21–23; Ezekiel 32:7–8; Joel 2:10; 3:15). Why? Because they wanted their audience to visualize the “de-creation” of the created order. God had appointed the sun, moon, and stars “to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:18). No matter how bad your life gets, you can always count on the sun rising tomorrow morning. But if you can’t trust the sun, moon, and stars, what can you trust? The prophets wanted to depict a time of chaos and destruction, a terrible judgment in which even the most reliable institutions around them would collapse. Each of these judgments was “the end of the world” on a smaller scale, a “Day of the Lord” event, and each pointed toward a final “Day of the Lord” in which heaven and earth itself would be dissolved.

So the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. is yet another Day of the Lord. It is the end of an age. The temple institution which is the foundation for Jewish politics, commerce, and religion is about to be destroyed. Their world will come to an end.

Why will this take place? To establish the kingdom of Jesus, the Son of Man. Using imagery from Daniel 7:13–14, Jesus paints the picture of his reign being established by God as he comes “in clouds with great power and glory.” And then his kingdom grows and spreads, as his chosen people from all nations are gathered in, repenting and believing, extending his reign “from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

As wild as this promise may sound to his disciples, Jesus promises that “it is near, at the very gates.” Just like the budding of the fig tree indicates that summer is almost here, so the signs of Jerusalem’s destruction indicate that his kingdom is being established. In fact, Jesus tells his disciples, “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Some of them will see it with their own eyes!

Then, Jesus tells them, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” There will come a final Day of the Lord in which “the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn.” They must be replaced by “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:12–13).

Don’t trust in your job security. Don’t trust in your bank account. Don’t trust in your retirement savings. Don’t trust in the stock market. Don’t trust in the government. Don’t trust in the American military. Don’t even trust in the sun, moon, and stars. They will all fail someday, without exception. Ground your faith in the promise of the Son of Man, that he is setting up “an everlasting dominion which shall not pass away” (Daniel 7:14).

And while we’re on the subject, definitely don’t trust in Harold Camping.

Jesus has come to protect his disciples, so have confidence in him alone (Mark 13:14–23) — May 12, 2011

Jesus has come to protect his disciples, so have confidence in him alone (Mark 13:14–23)

Last week, we read that Jesus doesn’t want us to be Chicken Littles who panic whenever some cataclysm happens, convinced that the world is coming to an end—that “the sky is falling!”

But what if the sky actually is falling?

After Jesus announces that the Jewish temple will be destroyed (13:1–2), his disciples have asked him, “When will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” (13:4). In addition the destruction of the temple, they seem to want to know when he will set up his kingdom on earth. Because these two events are interrelated but separated in time, Jesus’ answer will include elements from both. But first of all, he warns them not to be easily alarmed by cataclysms or by false announcements of his coming; in fact, they should expect persecution since his coming will be delayed (13:5–13).

However, the time will come when the temple will be destroyed, and it won’t be pleasant. We know from history that in 37 years, a Roman army will overrun Judea in response to a rebellion. Jerusalem will be destroyed, and the temple will be razed to the ground, just as Jesus is prophesying. The Jews will be massacred. Jesus wants to protect his vulnerable disciples from this act of judgment, so he tells them to watch for “the abomination of desolation standing where it ought not to be.” When they see this, they are to drop everything and run! The suffering will be so terrible that “if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved.” Everyone in Judea would be killed.

We know that the Christians in Jerusalem obeyed Jesus’ warning and evacuated to the town of Pella to the north and across the Jordan River. By following Jesus’ warning, they escaped with their lives.

“But wait!” you ask. “What is this ‘abomination of desolation’ that they were supposed to look out for?” Well, we know that Jesus was quoting from the book of Daniel, in which it was prophesied that a vicious tyrant would desecrate the temple with some sort of “abomination” (Daniel 8:9–14; 9:26–27; 11:31; 12:11). This prophecy was initially fulfilled when Antiochus IV Epiphanes outlawed the worship of the Lord and set up swine sacrifices in the temple about 200 years before Jesus’ words. Apparently history is about to repeat itself, and another “abomination of desolation” is yet to come before the temple is destroyed.

And if you’re wondering whether I know what this “abomination” turned out to be, the answer is no. There are plenty of theories out there, but no one knows for sure. Ultimately, it’s not terribly important what it was exactly. What’s important is that Jesus is warning his disciples to protect them from death.

Not only is he protecting them from death with these warnings, but he’s also protecting them from deception. He tells them, “If anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. False christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect.” In times of great suffering, people will latch on to any charismatic figure who offers them hope, especially one who can (supposedly?) perform miracles. “Be on guard,” Jesus says. “I have told you all things beforehand.” This prophecy is meant to protect his disciples so that they can survive the dangerous times that are coming.

Here’s what this passage tells us about Jesus: he wants to protect those who are his own. Twice he calls them the elect—people who have been chosen by God. He won’t abandon the people whom God has chosen to be called by his name. He will preserve them even when the world around them comes apart at the seams. They can say with confidence, “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress!” (Psalm 46:11).

So how should this affect our thinking and our behavior? First, we must be confident no matter how severe the danger surrounding us. Our confidence does not come because we have enough influence or financial security or government protection to avoid suffering. As though these things will protect us when “the earth gives way…the nations rage, the kingdoms totter” (Psalm 46:2, 6)! Neither can we be confident in our own intelligence, thinking that false teaching won’t deceive us. No, it is God who is “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear” (Psalm 46:1–2).

Second, watch out! It’s dangerous to have too much confidence in the institutions of man, whether it’s the Jerusalem temple or the national government or the stability of your employer. And as we just observed, it’s dangerous to have confidence in your own ability to discern false teaching. So watch carefully to make sure that you trust only in your Lord, Jesus Christ, to save you when the world falls apart around you.

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