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Jesus is in command over the spiritual realm (Mark 5:1–20) — May 3, 2010

Jesus is in command over the spiritual realm (Mark 5:1–20)

In any good summer blockbuster movie, our intrepid hero stares down overwhelming opposition in a final showdown. Vastly outnumbered, he relies on his wits and skill to emerge victorious from the battle. We cheer him on because we love to see the good guy win, especially if he’s the underdog.

It’s a little different in Jesus’ case. He’s about to be vastly outnumbered by the enemy, but it doesn’t even faze him. Jesus is not the underdog; he is never the underdog. But he likes to help people who are underdogs.

Immediately following the terrific windstorm from the night before, Jesus and his followers reach land on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. This region is inhabited by the Gerasenes, who were Gentiles. It’s the first time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus ventures into Gentile territory. As soon as he steps onto the land, he is confronted by a powerful foe.

A man rushes down the beach to meet him, and he isn’t coming with friendly intent. He is a wild beast of a man, an unclean Gentile, controlled by an unclean spirit, living among unclean tombs. No one can tame him and chain him down; the unclean spirit gives him phenomenal strength to break his bonds. But now we see this monster falling down on the beach before Jesus, shrieking, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” In other words, he is pleading with Jesus, “Leave me alone!” Why? Because Jesus had begun to confront the spirit controlling the man, saying, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” It’s a showdown between spiritual forces, and there’s no question who is going to win.

Then the big reveal takes place. Jesus ignores the man and confronts the unclean spirit inside him, demanding, “What is your name?” And the spirit replies, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” A legion was a roman army unit comprised of 6,000 men; it represented a force of astounding size. There were innumerable demons oppressing this man—but they are reduced to begging Jesus for mercy. They beg him to let them stay in the country and enter a herd of (unclean) pigs; Jesus gives them permission. This is an act of defiance on the part of these spirits; they have been embarrassed and want to save face by demonstrating their power. They represent such an overwhelming force that, in their fury, they are able to drown the entire herd of 2,000 pigs into the lake like so many lemmings.

When the pig herdsmen witness this incredible show of force, they run to tell the news to whomever will listen. Those who hear it run to see it for themselves, and there they find Jesus—and the demon-possessed man, sitting there calmly, “clothed and in his right mind.” And then, Mark tells us, “They were afraid.” They know that these spirits have tremendous power; the spirits had turned this man into an untamable beast, and they had just driven a massive herd of pigs to their death. Yet Jesus had dismissed them all with a simple command. These spirits were frightening enough—how much more so the man who mastered them!

But here’s the thing about fear: it doesn’t guarantee faith. As the legion of spirits begged Jesus, so now the people beg him for a favor as well—“to depart from their region.” Why? Because Jesus is a threat to them. When someone with this power shows up, he changes the status quo. That’s great news to people who are outcast or oppressed, like the demon-possessed man. But it’s bad news for people like the herdsmen, who have nothing to gain when the King comes to exercise his authority. If Jesus is in command over the spiritual realm, there is no stopping him. So they plead with him to leave, and Jesus obliges them.

As for the demon-possessed man, he too begs Jesus for a favor. He asks “that he might be with him.” This is what Jesus had asked his disciples to do (3:14). So will he grant the man’s request, just as he had granted the request of the unclean spirits and the request of the man’s Gerasene countrymen? Strangely, he does not. He has a better plan for his new recruit: “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”

If you’ve been following along for the first four chapters of Mark, this order should surprise you. Jesus has repeatedly tried to hide himself and his message, ordering unclean spirits and a cleansed leper to keep quiet about him, and speaking in parables to conceal the good news of God’s kingdom. As we keep reading in Mark, we will find that he continues to value secrecy. But here, he orders the man to tell everyone about what had happened. Why?

Take a look at what Jesus asks the man to say. “Tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” That’s all. The message the man is to deliver is simply this: the Most High God of the Jews has come to deal kindly with the Gentiles. This demoniac was an unclean man among unclean men. If Jesus feels compassion for him and rescues him, how much more will he do so for his countrymen! The man travels throughout the region, telling how much Jesus has done for him, and everyone marvels over the news.

We saw last week that Jesus had authority over the natural world, and now we see that he has command over the spiritual realm. And once again, he uses that authority with a meekness, a gentleness, a pity for the outcast and the oppressed. A madman in agony, loneliness, and despair—now clothed and in his right mind and jubilant with news of a great Savior.

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Jesus possesses fearsome authority (Mark 4:35–41) — April 26, 2010

Jesus possesses fearsome authority (Mark 4:35–41)

A couple of winters ago, I was taking my car around a corner when it slid on a patch of ice. In a stunned, this-can’t-be-happening moment, I felt my car careen toward another parked vehicle and strike it with a solid thud. Amazingly, no damage was done—our cars were both coated in ice, so not even the paint was scratched! Yet I was so rattled by the accident that I refused to drive my car for the rest of the day. Ever since, I have been far more cautious when turning a corner on an icy winter day.

Have you ever experienced an event that rattled you so much that it altered the way you react to the situations you face in life? For the first time, Jesus’ disciples are about to experience that feeling when they realize that they have underestimated this Galilean rabbi.

After a day of preaching in parables to his vast audience, Jesus decides it’s time to move on to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. So he and his disciples set out across the lake in a flotilla of fishing boats. Unfortunately, they are caught in the middle of the lake by a terrific windstorm which whips up massive waves that threaten to sink the vessels. Many of the disciples on Jesus’ boat were probably fishermen, and they knew all too well how deadly these storms could be. They could see that the boat was filling with water, that they couldn’t bail it out fast enough, that their death was inevitable. And just a few hours ago they had been basking in the attention of their rabbi and the adulation of the crowds!

At some point in their growing panic, some of Jesus’ disciples notice that he is in the stern—and that he is fast asleep. Unbelievable! They wake him up and shout, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” That’s the only possible explanation for why he is asleep. Jesus seems so callous toward their very survival.

Ignoring their question, Jesus gets on his feet and shouts to the wind and the waves roaring around him, “Peace! Be still!” He rebukes them, just as he has rebuked the unclean spirits. And then—“the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.” And just as the demons did, the forces of nature obey him. I like to picture the storm clouds dissipating, leaving the reflections of stars in the smooth mirror of the lake. Little ripples spread out from the boat as it bobs up and down in the water. There is no sign of a storm, not a sound. The disciples are dumbstruck. After a moment’s silence, Jesus turns to them.

“Why are you so cowardly? Have you still no faith?”

Most translations have Jesus accusing the disciples of being “afraid,” but actually he is more frank than that. He calls them cowards. Their panic was unreasonable and unacceptable.

I don’t know about you, but I tend to sympathize with the disciples here. I can see why they would be afraid. The storm is too powerful; the waves are too great; their boat is too small. That’s not how Jesus sees it, though. He knows he has authority over the forces of nature. They can’t do a thing that he doesn’t permit. No need to interrupt his nap.

The disciples don’t perceive Jesus’ power, so they question his love. They doubt him. And because they doubt both his love for them and his power to save them, they become cowards. If you want to become a coward, this is the quickest way.

When Jesus intervenes with a miracle, their cowardice is replaced not with confidence but with “great fear.” When a great storm is replaced with a great calm, they are filled with great fear. The windstorm was tremendously dangerous; how much more so the man who has authority over the storm! “Who then is this?” they ask.

God often uses fear to unsettle us. The disciples didn’t seem to fathom that Jesus was anything more than a great teacher and miracle worker. Perhaps they may have entertained the notion that he was something more. But now, burning in their souls, is the reality that they don’t have a clue who Jesus really is. New questions are forming in their minds, questions whose answers will lead them to faith.

Jesus’ challenge to his disciples is essentially this: “Do you trust me?” By their actions, they show that they don’t—not yet. They need to see his fearsome authority over the wind and the sea. They need to know that he is more than a man. This is the cure for doubt and cowardice—to see Jesus Christ as trustworthy. You are weak; you are at the mercy of powerful forces that will crush you. But Jesus is strong. Don’t underestimate him.

Jesus grows his followers (Mark 4:21–34) — April 19, 2010

Jesus grows his followers (Mark 4:21–34)

There are two ways in which a farmer can increase the size of the crop he is able to produce. The first way is to acquire new land and expand the area of his crop onto it. The second way is to increase the yield of the same land by introducing new methods of agriculture. In short, he can increase the quantity of his farmland or he can improve the quality of it.

Of course, an ambitious farmer will do both. Last week, we looked at the fact that Jesus rejects those who are outsiders, who aren’t truly his disciples. This week, we’ll see how ambitious Jesus really is when it comes to growing his followers and expanding his kingdom. Jesus goes for both quality of disciples and quantity.

Jesus picks up right where he left off with the parable of the four soils. He had been talking about how outsiders are ignorant when it comes to God’s kingdom—this is God’s judgment on them. Insiders, on the other hand, are characterized by “fruit-bearing,” or the marks of a disciple. In Mark’s gospel, so far, disciples are identified as people who are with Jesus and who imitate Jesus. He explains why disciples are guaranteed to grow, using two illustrations.

First, Jesus asks what the purpose of lighting a lamp is. Is it lit so that its light may be hidden, or is it lit so that its light may reveal what is hidden? Obviously, it’s the latter. In the same way, the gospel message that Jesus brings is intended to reveal the truth about God and his work in the world. While it may be hidden from the blind and deaf outsiders (verse 12), it will certainly reveal truth to attentive insiders, who have “ears to hear.” That is its purpose.

Second, Jesus shows that his disciples will be given more and more understanding. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you,” he promises. “For to the one who has, more will be given.” He will reward his followers, who are eager to know him and to understand his message. Jesus will give them exactly what they are looking for and more! He will overwhelm them with blessing. But he also warns, “From the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” There will be fake disciples who have a loose grasp on who Jesus is and what he is doing. These outsiders will not be blessed with insight but will become even more spiritually dull than they were before.

Now that Jesus has established the fact that his individual followers will grow in knowledge, he launches into two parables describing how his kingdom will grow in general. The first parable tells the story of a farmer who sows seed and watches as it grows over time by itself. He does nothing to make it grow; he is mystified by how it can produce a crop. All he does is sit back and wait for the harvest. So we see that when Jesus’ gospel message is spoken and believed, it produces growth in the lives of many people. This growth comes from God; it’s not something that the speaker can produce. In other words, you and I can’t change other people’s hearts! All we can do is tell them the good news and let the Holy Spirit do his work in his timing. The kingdom grows gradually and mysteriously. With each passing day and month and year, Jesus’ disciples begin to recognize his reign over them and respond to him as their King. They produce fruit that identifies them as insiders.

The second parable describes the kingdom as a tiny mustard seed that grows into an enormous, tree-like mustard plant which towers over all the other garden plants. In other words, the kingdom may start small, but it gets big, like a snowball rolling down a hill. It may seem unimpressive now, but it won’t stay that way for long. Jesus may only have a few followers now, but they will grow in number, until his kingdom has expanded to fill the whole earth with the glory of the Lord. With the seed of his gospel message, Jesus will grow God’s kingdom into a powerful worldwide movement.

Let’s stop to consider the implications for you and me. What this means is that real disciples will always bear the marks of insiders. They will produce fruit, being with Jesus and imitating him. They will be growing continually. The gospel message, to them, is not a one-time decision that they leave in the past. They do not simply “pray a prayer” and move on. No! The gospel is the source of their growth, and they return to it day by day so they will not become stagnant. They grow through the power of the Holy Spirit. They grow in godliness and influence, extending Jesus’ gospel message to a world that needs to hear it.

Mark wraps up his account of Jesus’ parables by telling us that Jesus is only speaking to the crowd in parables now. He is hiding his gospel message from outsiders. He is only explaining the parables to insiders. So which group do you belong to? Are you an outsider, either consciously or unconsciously opposing Jesus? Perhaps you call yourself a Christian, but you’ve deceived yourself for many years; you’ve never understood the gospel and never been a part of God’s kingdom. Or are you an insider, slowly learning and growing as the Lord mysteriously transforms your heart? If you truly are a disciple of Jesus, you will learn and change and grow, because Jesus loves his followers, and he always makes sure that they will grow.

Jesus changes everyone (Mark 4:1–20) — April 12, 2010

Jesus changes everyone (Mark 4:1–20)

As every preacher knows, there isn’t a person alive who doesn’t like a good story. Being able to tell an anecdote or a personal experience is a great way to illustrate God’s truth in a way that everyone can understand. Of course, you’ll have the occasional speaker who will get so caught up in telling a story that he becomes lost in the wilderness of his own imagination. But any preacher worth his salt will do his best to avoid that mistake; he wants his stories to reveal truth, not hinder it.

Once again, Jesus isn’t just any preacher. We typically think that he tells parables so that people will understand truth. That’s not the reason that he gives, though.

We saw a “sandwich story” the last time we looked at Mark, and now we’re seeing one again. We find Jesus beside the sea again, and this time he hops in a boat right away so the crowds don’t crush him. Then he tells them a bunch of parables, which are short fictional stories that illustrate a truth about God and his kingdom. One parable in particular stands out: a farmer sows seed on four different kinds of soil—a footpath, rocky ground, a thorn patch, and rich soil. The seed only produces grain in the rich soil, but this soil is so good that it yields an absurd amount of grain. So all of that is the upper slice of bread in the “sandwich.”

Then comes the meat between the bread. Jesus’ followers approach him, asking him to explain why he’s teaching in parables, and he gives a rather surprising reason. “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God,” he says, “but for those outside everything is in parables.” In other words, Jesus knows something very important about the kingdom which God is going to set up, but he won’t tell it to just anyone. It’s only for his disciples to know. The reason Jesus speaks in parables isn’t to reveal the truth about the kingdom to “those outside”—it’s to hide the truth about the kingdom from them. Jesus’ disciples are the insiders, and he will explain the truth to them, but he won’t tell it to anyone else.

Why not? What reason could Jesus possibly have for keeping God’s kingdom a secret? He reaches back to the Old Testament and adapts a famous stanza from Isaiah 6:9–10. He is hiding this knowledge from outsiders so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.”

Does that bother you? It bothers me. But I suppose I should ask a more important question: is this the Jesus you think you know? Does he have the right to say, “There is a certain group of people whom I will hide the truth from so that they won’t repent and be forgiven”? That’s the Jesus whom you and I are facing in this story. That’s what Jesus is like in real life.

So now we are left to ask, “Who are these ‘outsiders’? Why is Jesus holding back the truth that would cause them to repent?” So far in Mark’s gospel, we’ve seen Jesus reject the religious leaders because they have hardened their hearts against him. We’ve seen him reject his own family because they refuse to be with him and imitate him, which is what his disciples do. And now, he’s going to add new groups to the ever-expanding circle of “outsiders.”

The meat of Mark’s “sandwich” has given us the clue we need to understand what comes next. And what comes next (the lower slice of bread) is Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the four soils. Jesus says to his followers, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” In other words, this is a special parable because it’s actually a parable about parables—a metaparable, if you will. The seed represents “the word”—Jesus’ good news about the coming kingdom, which he tells in the form of parables. The first soil, the hardened footpath, represents those who are hard-hearted, like the religious leaders. The word doesn’t get in at all but lies dead on the surface, where Satan plucks it away. These outsiders won’t even consider what Jesus has to say. The second soil, the rocky ground, represents those who respond to the word with joy, but have only a shallow commitment. When tough times come, these outsiders fall away, because deep down they don’t really get it. The third soil, the thorn patch, represents those who have other dreams and desires besides the kingdom. These outsiders are distracted by a love of money or possessions or entertainment or anything else the world can offer. All these desires choke out their supposed love for God because they don’t really understand Jesus’ message, either.

Finally, Jesus tells us about the good, rich soil. When the seed falls here, it produces  a ridiculous bumper crop. A hundredfold yield was unheard of in Jesus’ day; this soil is unbelievably rich. This soil represents the insiders, Jesus’ true disciples. You can tell them apart from the outsiders because they “bear fruit.” This is because they have been given “the secret of the kingdom of God.”

What we’ve just read is a sobering message with so many implications that you and I couldn’t possibly sort through them all in the space of a single blog post. We know now that many people in the church will look like insiders but are actually outsiders who don’t understand the gospel. We know now that it’s an enduring faith, not a flash-in-the-pan spiritual experience, that marks a true disciple. We know now that many professing Christians are under the judgment of God, who blinds idol worshipers who turn to something or someone other than God for ultimate security (see Psalm 115:8).

Above all, we see that Jesus’ message changes everyone, because Jesus is a polarizing figure. Some people he transforms into his disciples. Other people he hardens into his opponents. His message has already changed you. Are you an insider or an outsider?

Jesus rejects those who reject him (Mark 3:20–35) — March 29, 2010

Jesus rejects those who reject him (Mark 3:20–35)

Have you ever seen a friend or family member turn an awkward situation into a train wreck? You know, the sort of situation where you just want to get out of the room, hop in a car, and drive about 500 miles away just to escape the tension? Entire TV shows have been written around this sort of premise.

Usually, I’m the one who causes situations like that. But today, it’s Jesus. Or at least, that’s how his family feels about him.

Mark doesn’t talk a lot about Jesus’ family. In fact, this is the only passage where they are mentioned. But we do get to see their attitude toward him at this point in his ministry: “He is out of his mind.” They are so embarrassed by Jesus’ teaching and behavior that they’ve come to take him home and lock him away until they can nurse him back to reality.

Now, here’s where Mark launches into one of his “sandwich” stories. If you read his gospel carefully, you’ll see that Mark likes to begin a story, interrupt it with another story, and then return to finish his first story. So it’s kind of like a story sandwich. The inner story helps you to understand what’s going on in the outer story. In this case, the outer story (the sandwich bread) is Jesus’ response to his family; the inner story (the delicious sandwich innards) is Jesus’ response to the religious teachers from Jerusalem who have come to slander him. Mark interrupts the first story so that we can understand why Jesus responds to his family the way he does.

So let’s take a look at the interrupting story. Jesus has become so popular that religious leaders have traveled from the capital city of Jerusalem to backwater Galilee in order to see what’s going on. They see him heal people and they see him cast out demons, but they don’t like his teaching, because he’s attacking their legalism. So how do they convince people to reject Jesus? Well, they can’t deny that miracles are taking place, so they announce that “he is possessed by Beelzebul…by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” And the fact is, they truly believe it. They have convinced themselves that Jesus is a demon-possessed, Satan-worshiping deceiver.

Of course, Jesus makes short work of their claims. He points out the obvious: a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand, and neither can a household divided against itself. So why in the world would Satan launch a civil war against his own forces? He’s a little bit too bright for that.

Not content to shoot down these accusations, Jesus offers a better interpretation of what’s going on. “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods,” he says, “unless he first binds the strong man.” He likens Satan to a strong man who maintains a grip on the people of Israel through demon possession. Jesus is the stronger man who ties up Satan so that “he may plunder his house.” Jesus is setting people free from Satan’s oppression. That’s what these exorcisms are all about.

At this point, Jesus turns to these religious teachers and utters one of the most harrowing condemnations in scripture. “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” This is “the unpardonable sin”—blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. These teachers have seen the Holy Spirit at work, and they have called him the devil. They have resisted the gospel to the point that they are witnessing the life-saving power of the Spirit and convincing themselves that he is utterly wicked. So Jesus tells them, “There is no hope for you. Forgiveness is available to anyone who repents of any sin, no matter how severe. But you will never repent.” Like Pharaoh, they have completely hardened their hearts against the Holy Spirit, so in an act of judgment, God will harden their hearts further so that they may never believe in Jesus Christ and be forgiven.

The awful irony is that these teachers accuse Jesus of being “possessed by Beelzebul,” yet it is they who have aligned themselves with the devil. To reject Jesus is to choose a side—you must be in league with Satan and his demonic forces. Oh, how you and I need to pray to God, “Keep our hearts soft and teachable so that we can remain faithful to our Savior!”

On this tragic note, Mark returns to his first story. Jesus’ family has arrived outside the house where he is teaching. They send word for him, but he refuses to come. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asks. He looks around at those who are listening to him and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”

If we hadn’t read the interrupting story first, we might think that Jesus is being rather harsh toward his family. But now we understand: they rejected him first. They’ve chosen a side, and it is the side of Satan. They haven’t committed the unforgivable sin—they do repent and believe in him later. For now, though, we leave them standing outside, while Jesus has chosen to be with his new, adopted family instead.

This should be a clear lesson for us. Jesus doesn’t play favorites. If you grew up in a Christian home, or in a Christian culture, that’s no guarantee that Jesus won’t reject you. You must “be with him” (v 14) and do the will of God, proving that you really have believed in him. Jesus is a polarizing figure, separating insiders from outsiders. Will you be on his side or on the devil’s side?

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