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Jesus has come to conquer death, so don’t underestimate his authority (Mark 15:40–16:8) — October 25, 2011

Jesus has come to conquer death, so don’t underestimate his authority (Mark 15:40–16:8)

Jesus is dead.

Mark is very clear on the matter. He introduces three women to the story, and he follows their eyewitness accounts of the events following Jesus’ crucifixion. The women watch Jesus breathe his last and die. Two of them take note of where he is buried, seeing a great stone rolled as a seal across the entrance. The man who buries him, a secret disciple named Joseph, handles Jesus’ body, taking it down from the cross and wrapping it in a linen shroud before laying it in his own tomb. The centurion who observed Jesus’ rapid death also confirms it to the Roman governor Pilate.

Jesus is dead, dead, dead.

It’s really hard for me to imagine the effect Jesus’ resurrection had on his disciples. For us, the events have already taken place, and we know from the beginning that he will rise from the dead. It’s no surprise. But to Jesus’ followers, his resurrection was a thundering shock. When the women arrive at the tomb early on Sunday morning, they are convinced that they will find a dead body. They’ve prepared their anointing spices and are ready to play out the familiar postmortem rituals. Their only question is, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?”

Even as they’re worrying aloud to one another about this rather important detail, they catch sight of the tomb from a distance—“and they saw that the stone had been rolled back.” Suddenly, events are taking an unfamiliar turn. As they enter the tomb, they see “a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe.” And they suffer a collective heart attack.

This strange young man sitting in a tomb immediately tries to calm them down. First, the obvious: “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.” Then, the shocking twist: “He has risen! He is not here; see the place where they laid him.” The young man gestures toward the niche where Jesus’ body was placed. It’s empty now. The women see the truth with their own eyes.

This “young man” (clearly an angel!) gives them a message from Jesus. He says, “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” Even though the disciples (especially Peter) have abandoned him, Jesus hasn’t abandoned them. Not only is he alive, he plans to meet with them again!

Now, the angel’s commands to the women are “go” and “tell.” So what do the women do? Mark records that they “went out”…and “fled.” And “they said nothing to anyone”—at least not right away.

What gives? Why did they fail to carry out the angel’s instructions? Mark explains that “trembling and astonishment had seized them…they were afraid.” In other words, their response to the angel was pure terror. They panicked and ran away.

So why the hysteria? Well, their actions speak loud enough. They were fully expecting a dead man. Their minds were locked into the usual pattern of things; it never occurred to them that Jesus might not stay dead. So when the angel’s announcement shattered the orderly reign of Death, they were utterly unable to process what had taken place. Mentally overloaded, they turned and ran.

The women had stood at a distance and watched Jesus’ death. They could handle that, albeit with great pain. Joseph could even exercise courage when it came to preparing Jesus’ body for burial. But when Jesus breaks loose from the dominion of Death, the women can’t take it.

Jesus calmed a storm which threatened his disciples, and they became afraid of him. Jesus drove a legion of demons out of a wild man, and the people nearby responded with fear and asked him to leave. Now Jesus has conquered the undefeated enemy, Death, and the response is shock and terror.

These people responded in fear because they underestimated Jesus. He seemed to be a good teacher, perhaps a prophet, even the Messiah. But when he began to overpower natural and spiritual forces, that caught them by surprise. Then he announced that he would triumph over the grave—and so he did, “just as he told you.” No one believed him.

It is not possible to underestimate Jesus. He is the Son of God. He has authority over Death itself. If you have not given up on yourself and bowed the knee to him, this is very bad news. If he can conquer Death, what will he do with a rebel like you?

But if you belong to him as his disciple and servant, Jesus’ victory will fill you with confidence in his limitless authority:

Fear not! I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. (Revelation 1:17–18)

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Jesus has come to be rejected as King and condemned in place of rebels (Mark 15:1–15) — August 8, 2011

Jesus has come to be rejected as King and condemned in place of rebels (Mark 15:1–15)

Authority figures like to hold on to power. Politicians in the USA campaign constantly in order to hold onto their elected offices. Dictators such as Bashar al-Assad of Syria kill anyone who questions their rule. When you’re king of the hill, you fight to stay on top.

So what in the world does Jesus think he’s doing?

“Are you the King of the Jews?” That’s the only question Pontius Pilate cares about. If Jesus is simply a maverick religious leader, then Pilate isn’t interested in the case. He is the Roman governor, and he has no interest in getting entangled with Jewish religious matters.

However, if this Jesus is claiming to be a Jewish king, as the Jewish religious leaders insist, then Rome has no choice but to act. There can be no king but Caesar.

But when Pilate asks his question, Jesus simply responds, “You have said so.” It’s a terse way of telling Pilate, that yes, he is King of the Jews, but he’s not the kind of king that Pilate is thinking of. Beyond these words, Jesus says nothing to defend himself against his accusers. Pilate is shocked. Doesn’t Jesus realize that his life is at stake here? Why won’t he say a word to defend himself?

Pilate instinctively suspects that the only thing Jesus is guilty of is being the object of the chief priests’ envy. They are afraid of his growing influence in Israel. So he looks for a way to escape this awkward situation. He doesn’t want to enrage the chief priests; the last thing he needs is an uprising. His opportunity comes when a crowd gathers in his courtyard to ask him to pardon a prisoner, which is his custom during the Passover. So he appeals to the crowd, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?”

What Pilate hasn’t foreseen is that the chief priests have already gotten to the crowd. They demand that Pilate release a murderer named Barabbas. Mark comments that this man “committed murder in the insurrection”—a recent revolt against Roman rule. So instead of calling for Jesus, their rightful king, the mob cries out for Barabbas, a rebel and a murderer.

Pilate is at a loss. “What shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” he asks. “Crucify him!” the crowd shouts.

“Why? What evil has he done?” Pilate is a cruel governor, but even his conscience is bothered by this injustice. Without giving any reason, the mob roars, “Crucify him!”

Pilate gives in. He wants to spare Jesus, but if sacrificing an innocent man is what it takes “to satisfy the crowd,” he’s willing to dispense with this obscure Galilean rabbi. He orders Jesus to be crucified, after being viciously scourged by his soldiers.

Up to this point, it has been the Jewish leaders who have rejected Jesus. Now, Pilate rejects him as well. Both Jew and Gentile conspire to crucify the Son of God. They stand in judgment over him and condemn him as unworthy of life.

Our English translations say that Jesus was crucified between two “robbers.” In fact, the word translated robber was used by the Jewish historian Josephus to describe insurrectionists who opposed the Roman government. Rome had no interest in crucifying common thieves; crucifixion was a public spectacle meant for rebels against Rome. This Passover, three crosses have been prepared for three rebels. But on the central cross will hang a King in place of a rebel. Jesus will die so that Barabbas may live.

The crucifixion is horrible and beautiful. The rightful King is put to death by his own people, the Jews, and by the Gentiles to whom he offers hope. He is a threat to their power, so they attempt to eliminate him. But all this is part of his plan to die as a substitute for rebels who oppose the kingdom of God.

Nobody escapes guilt here. You and I fight every day to maintain control over our lives, to try to manipulate God and other people to give us the security and power and approval that we want. Each of us wants to be king. So we are the chief Priests, we are Pilate, and we are the hostile mob. And we are Barabbas, alive and free because our King was crucified in our place.

May we praise our King and give him the honour he deserves, because he came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Jesus has come to judge what’s most important, so don’t challenge his authority (Mark 12:28–34) — March 12, 2011

Jesus has come to judge what’s most important, so don’t challenge his authority (Mark 12:28–34)

Here’s the problem with most debates. Usually, a debate consists of two people who disagree with each other and aren’t interested in learning or changing their minds. Neither is really listening to each other; each just wants to catch the other person and vindicate himself.

Up till now in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been confronted by several factions of religious leaders who have no intention of learning from him. They’ve been trying to trap him in his words, to get him to say something unpopular so that the crowds will become disillusioned with him. It’s not working, though. Jesus has outmaneuvered them at every turn, demonstrating his command of scripture, his superior wisdom, and the hypocrisy of their hearts.

What’s about to come, however, is a bit of a respite from all this conflict.

The scribes are teachers of the law of Moses. On the whole, they oppose Jesus (see, for example, Mark 3:22). This scribe is different; he observes the disputes and sees that Jesus has answered his opponents well. So instead of trying to trap him, he decides to see if he can’t learn a few things from this surprising Galilean rabbi. “Which commandment is the most important of all?” he asks Jesus. It’s a fairly common question among Jewish scholars that invites plenty of debate.

Because this scribe has asked a straightforward question, Jesus gives him a straightforward answer. He quotes the Shema, the great commandment from the book of Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

Now, Jesus isn’t the first Jewish teacher to identify this as the greatest commandment. The Shema was central to first-century Jews just as the Lord’s Prayer is to modern Christians. The Shema establishes that the Lord is the one and only God, and thus he requires the exclusive and complete devotion of his covenant people. The rest of the law merely details what this devotion looks like.

What’s unusual is that Jesus pairs the Shema with a second commandment from Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These two have never been connected to one another in Jewish thought. So not only does God require the self to be devoted to him alone, he also requires a love for one’s neighbor. In other words, you can’t put yourself on a pedestal. The people around you are just as important as you are, and you are therefore to show them the same attention and dedication which you show to yourself and your own goals and dreams. Taken together, these two commandments tear down the citadel of self, the age-old lie that sets one’s self up on a throne where only the Lord belongs.

Now, when this scribe hears Jesus’ answer, a light bulb turns on inside his head. He’s been part of a temple system which emphasizes the importance of ritual sacrifices and ceremonial laws. In contrast, Jesus is saying that love is what God’s law is all about. What the scribe realizes is that Jesus isn’t pulling this idea out of thin air; it’s found throughout the Old Testament. Not only is it taught in the two passages that Jesus mentioned (Deuteronomy 6:4–5; Leviticus 19:18), but in other scripture God has made it clear that he wants loving, devoted, broken-hearted followers more than he wants adherents to a sacrificial system (1 Samuel 15:22; Psalms 40:6–8 and 51:16–17; Hosea 6:6). So the scribe takes Jesus’ teaching and runs with it, saying that love for God and one’s neighbor “is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” It’s what’s inside of you that counts more than your religious duties.

Jesus sees that this scribe is connecting the dots. So just as he judged what was the most important commandment, he announces his judgment of the scribe’s spiritual condition: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” This is the highest praise he gives to any of the religious leaders! The scribe hasn’t committed himself to Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God, but all signs seem to indicate that he will.

Now, this story tells us a lot about the law and God’s purpose for it. But don’t forget that Mark’s gospel is about Jesus first and foremost. And what we learn here is that Jesus has the right to judge the very law that God has given, to decide which commandments are most important. He also has the right to judge people as to whether or not they are a part God’s kingdom which is invading the present world.

It’s not insignificant that “after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.” Jesus has demonstrated an unmatched authority and wisdom. He is not to be questioned. Rather, you and I are to live as his disciples, loving God and one another, recognizing him as the Judge of what’s most important.

Jesus has divine authority, so don’t brush him off (Mark 11:27–33) — December 27, 2010

Jesus has divine authority, so don’t brush him off (Mark 11:27–33)

Living near (and working on) a college campus, I have the opportunity to interact with college students every day. Like most Americans, college students tend to hold vague ideas about religion and spiritual matters, but the majority aren’t willing to go deeper. I’ve noticed a pattern—a calculated agnosticism—when it comes to their understanding of who Jesus is. They have a lot of respect for the man, but they don’t know if he’s really God, and they’re not intent on finding out. If they did, they might have to form beliefs that will offend their peers.

Jesus faced this same attitude when he was confronted by the religious authorities in Jerusalem, an informal delegation from the Sanhedrin. In Mark’s account, he has just arrived in the Holy City and has announced that the corrupt temple leadership is unacceptable. And they’re not too happy that someone is criticizing them.

Here’s the question that the religious and political leaders of Jerusalem are posing to Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” They certainly haven’t given him permission. The things Jesus has been saying are intolerant and arrogant. How dare he judge them? Who does he think he is?

Now, Jesus is an expert heart surgeon. He knows exactly how to reveal what’s really going on deep inside these men. So like a good rabbi, he poses a question in response: “Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” The answer to his question will reveal the answer to their question.

Now, these religious leaders weren’t big fans of John the Baptist. He had appeared like a madman in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming that Israel should repent of their sins, announcing that a mightier one would come, promising that “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8). And when John baptizes Jesus, God vindicates Jesus as sinless and pleasing to him and commissions him as his anointed Son.

Jesus forces the delegation to pick one of two options. There can be no in-between. If John’s baptism was backed by divine authority, then the leaders are guilty of hypocrisy, because they didn’t believe they had to repent. They’re also guilty because up till now, they haven’t been buying into Jesus either. If they’d believed John, they would have believed Jesus. Their behavior proves that they don’t really believe Jesus has come from God.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of danger in declaring that Jesus possesses merely human authority. The people believe that Jesus is a prophet; they’re enamored with his profound and challenging teaching. It’s trendy to ride the Jesus wave. Like calculated agnostics, the members of the delegation don’t want to appear closed-minded and contrarian. So they take the easy way out, telling Jesus, “We do not know.”

Mark records this thought process as a discussion among the delegation. This discussion reveals the hearts of many agnostics, or people who claim they’re “spiritual but not religious,” or anyone else who tap-dances around the question of who Jesus really is. The reality is that such people are practical atheists. They want to hold Jesus at arm’s length, leaving open the possibility that he might be from God in order to save face with the pluralist crowd. But they don’t want Jesus interfering with their lives; they don’t want to turn from behavior that he says is sinful. So they act as if he had no more authority than any other man.

How does Jesus respond to this attitude? He tells the delegation, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” This isn’t a childish response; it’s a wise response. Jesus sees that they don’t really want to know the truth. They’re looking for reasons not to buy into him. He knows it’s a waste of time to argue; his miracles are argument enough. They don’t believe because they don’t want to believe.

This deadly condition is not limited to unbelievers. You and I must be careful of the practical atheism that is rooted deeply in our hearts. If you are a Christian, you have been fundamentally changed by the Holy Spirit to serve God with a renewed heart. However, the old self has not yet rotted away; there is still a hardened core that will not relent to the absolute authority of Jesus. Watch out for the practical atheism of others, and beware of it in your own heart. Jesus will accept nothing less than total rule over your heart.

Jesus has come to claim his throne, so praise him! (Mark 11:1–11) — November 17, 2010

Jesus has come to claim his throne, so praise him! (Mark 11:1–11)

As far as coronation ceremonies go, this wouldn’t make anyone’s top ten list.

The “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem is a scene that’s found in all four biblical accounts of Jesus’ life, and each author brings out different aspects of the event. If you’ve been following along with this Four Minutes in Mark series, the main themes of his story won’t surprise you too much.

First, we see Jesus exercising divine authority to appropriate a donkey for his entrance into the political and religious capital of the Jewish nation. If he knows its owner ahead of time, we aren’t told. Instead, Mark emphasizes the fact that Jesus gives specific directions to his disciples, foreseeing everything that will take place when they take the donkey. There’s something a little eerie about it—a supernatural knowledge of what’s about to take place. This isn’t the first time that Jesus has predicted his future, and we’re beginning to see that his predictions are accurate to the last detail.

Now, maybe you’re wondering why Jesus chooses a donkey! Wouldn’t a hulking stallion be more fitting for a king entering his capital to claim his throne? Well, not according to scripture. Jesus is going out of his way to fulfill the words of Zechariah the prophet:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

Zechariah, speaking words inspired by the Holy Spirit, sees a coming king who will enter Jerusalem to shouts of joy. He is a righteous man, coming to save his people. Mark records that all of these things are taking place. He also emphasizes that Jesus is riding on a young donkey. Why? Zechariah says that it’s an expression of humility. Jesus isn’t entering as a glorious, conquering hero. No, he’s claiming his throne as a weaponless peacemaker:

I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall speak peace to the nations;
his rule shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zechariah 9:10)

This is bad news for the Pharisees, the religious authorities who want Jesus to advance their political and religious cause by driving out the Romans and their ungodly influence on the Jewish nation. That may be their agenda, but it’s not Jesus’ agenda. He hasn’t come to make war on the surrounding nations but to speak peace to them. He has come to save them, not destroy them.

So what is Jesus doing in Jerusalem? Well, whatever it is, it involves the temple. He walks into the temple court, looks around for a while at everything…and leaves. It’s a bit of an anticlimactic ending. Once again, Jesus remains incognito. But rest assured, the cloak’s coming off soon. And it won’t be long before his humble yet audacious claim to the Jewish throne stirs up a hornet’s nest of controversy.

So what’s our response to this? Well, we need to consider what this tells us about Jesus. It’s so consistent with what we know about him from the rest of Mark’s gospel. Jesus is absolutely unwilling to cede any of his authority. He is the God-man, the Messiah, the King, and he is not afraid to lay claim to that position. Yet he is humble about it; rather than trumpeting his high position, he chooses to use his power in subtle ways, revealing himself only to those who “have ears to hear” (Mark 4:9). He is careful to reveal himself as a suffering servant rather than a magnificent conqueror.

Our response must be the same as his fellow pilgrims to Jerusalem. As he enters the city, they sing phrases from the Psalms that are rich in their expectation of God’s promised Messiah. “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” Praise the Lord our God because at long last our Savior has come. Praise him because he is uncompromising in his authority. Praise him because he is “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29). There is no one who embodies this paradox like Jesus.

Now, perhaps you don’t like this kind of Jesus. Perhaps you want a Jesus who’s just a good man, who doesn’t insist that he is the exclusive Lord over all the earth. Or perhaps you want a Jesus who offers a victorious life, free from suffering—who promises health, wealth, and a positive attitude. Or perhaps you want a Jesus who’s a culture warrior, who will champion your favorite political or social cause. If so, let me offer you this word of warning: what Jesus does over the next week of his ministry is really going to cheese you off, because he’s about to expose and condemn false disciples like you. Just a heads up, you know.

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