Jesus has come to prove his ability and demand your dependence (Mark 9:14–29)

This past June, an American man was captured by Pakistani authorities as he tried to sneak into Afghanistan. The man’s name was Gary Faulkner, and his mission was to decapitate Osama bin Laden. When Faulkner was caught, his only terrorist-hunting equipment was a pistol, a dagger, and night-vision goggles. Needless to say, his chance of success was slim.

But what if Gary Faulkner hadn’t entered Pakistan as a one-man army? What if the U.S. Army had approached him and offered tactical support from satellites and drones, and equipped him with powerful weapons and hardware? His odds for success would have increased tremendously if he accepted. But to be empowered in this way, he would first have to become dependent on the U.S. government, and I imagine that’s not something that Faulkner would be willing to do.

Jesus’ disciples faced a similar dilemma when encountering an enemy far more powerful than any terrorist. Sadly, they didn’t fare much better at defeating this foe than Faulkner did at killing bin Laden.

Jesus and his three closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, have just descended from the mountain where Jesus has given them a sneak peek of his glory in an event known as the Transfiguration. When they arrive at the foot of the mountain, they are snapped back into reality as they face a chaotic crowd riled up by fierce arguments between the rest of Jesus’ disciples and some experts in the law of Moses. Jesus asks what’s going on, and a man volunteers an answer. “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute,” he says. That’s just the beginning. The spirit also causes his son to fall into severe seizures. The man brought his son to see Jesus, but since Jesus was up on the mountain, the man had asked the disciples to cast out the unclean spirit. Now, Jesus had given them authority to do this (Mark 6:7), but inexplicably, they haven’t able to drive out the demon. Now all the religious teachers, looking for an excuse to discredit Jesus, are stirring up conflict against his hapless disciples.

Jesus is exasperated with the situation. “O faithless generation,” he says, “how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” He knows why the spirit won’t be driven out. The pervasive unbelief of the religious leaders, the crowds, and even his own disciples has denied them access to his authority as the divine Messiah.

Jesus orders the father, “Bring him to me.” When he does, the unclean spirit defies Jesus by inducing another seizure, so that his battered body is thrashing on the ground, foam dribbling from his mouth. The father explains that this situation has continued since he was a little child. The demon has used these seizures to throw the man’s son into fire and into water in a cruel attempt to kill him. Watching yet another awful seizure, the man pleads with Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us!”

“‘If you can’!” Jesus is incredulous. “All things are possible for one who believes.”

That’s the real problem here, you see. All the man sees is the supernatural entity gripping his son; all he knows is that he is powerless to stop this malevolent force. He doesn’t see Jesus’ divine authority. He isn’t sure that Jesus has the power to put an end to the spirit’s control of his son. But at Jesus’ words, his eyes are opened. He finally sees what’s really going on here. He cries out, “I believe!” and then, “Help my unbelief!”

If there is a verse in the Bible that better captures the agonizing tension of a Christian’s walk with God, I don’t know what it is. You say that he has power, but you can barely bring yourself to really believe it, deep down. You’ve got nothing more than a tiny mustard seed of faith.

But Jesus is satisfied with even a mustard seed. The crowd is growing in size, and it’s time to act now. He says to the demon, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” The boy convulses and shrieks, then lies still, corpse-like. The crowd is silent. Finally, a few people begin to whisper their worst fears: “He is dead.” But Jesus reaches down and takes his hand; the boy revives and stands on his feet, as though he were rising from the dead.

The scene shifts to the inside of a house, later in the day. Jesus’ disciples are questioning him, “Why could we not cast it out?” Jesus replies, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” A demon of such power won’t leave on one’s own authority. A disciple of Jesus must rely on prayer to accomplish what he himself cannot do.

In the moment of crisis, the boy’s father had understood this. He had asked Jesus for help to end the oppression of his son, but Jesus showed him that his greatest need was not deliverance from oppression but rather deliverance from unbelief.

Our culture urges you and me with platitudes such as “believe in yourself, and you can do anything.” Jesus tells us that this is a lie. Anyone who is a disciple of Jesus will face spiritual barriers that he or she cannot overcome. You will face suffering and conflict that you cannot handle. When the chips are down, who do you rely on? Is it yourself, or is it Jesus?

Jesus demands that you depend on him by spending less time flattering yourself and more time praying. He is not demanding your dependence merely to subjugate you but rather to empower you. He’s proved his ability, so you can give up your illusions of your own ability.

Jesus knows the law won’t help you (Mark 7:14–23)

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Ephesians 6:4

If you’re the father or mother of a teenager, then you’ve probably had to face the implications of this verse. When children are younger, you can develop a whole system of rules to keep them in line. Often, this helps give them the structure they need to develop and learn right from wrong. By the time they’re teenagers, however, they chafe against these rules. What’s sad is that sometimes parents respond by clamping down even harder, binding their children with rule upon rule to keep them under control. The parents’ intentions are good; they want to keep their children safe from harmful external influences. But they don’t realize that the problem is not something outside of their children but something inside their children’s hearts.

Jesus has just finished lambasting the Pharisees for supplementing God’s law about keeping ceremonially clean with their own man-made rules for washing before eating. He’s told them that when we make our own laws like this, we’re setting ourselves up as moral lawgivers, which is God’s place, not ours. Not only that, but we’re trying to dethrone God by pushing his rules aside to make room for our own. Replacing God’s law with human tradition is an act of insurrection against God. Ironically enough, the usual culprits of this crime are religious people. They think they’re worshiping God by supplementing his law with their own, proving their great dedication to him, but in reality they are hypocrites. They’re actors; they’re worshiping themselves and their tradition rather than God.

Now Jesus delivers the coup de grace. Not only are such legalists replacing God’s law with they’re own, they’re also making a fundamental mistake about the purpose of the law. Jesus gathers a crowd together to hear a short message. “Hear me, all of you, and understand,” he says. “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” Now, apparently this “parable” wasn’t clear enough for his disciples, because they approach him afterward to ask about it. Jesus gets a little frustrated here and exclaims, “Then are you also without understanding?” His disciples may not be inventing their own laws like the Pharisees are doing, but they’re still thinking about the purpose of God’s law in the same way as the Pharisees.

Jesus explains that food can’t make a person ceremonially unclean, since it simply passes through the body and is expelled. It doesn’t affect the core of who a person is—the heart. So Mark observes, “Thus he declared all foods clean.” This is very significant, because Jesus isn’t just condemning the Pharisees’ man-made laws. He’s also canceling the ceremonial regulations in the law of Moses that identified many foods as unclean. Jesus is nullifying the law, exactly as the Pharisees just did! How can he not be a hypocrite as well? The only way he can declare that all foods are clean is if he has divine authority, as the Author of the law, to rewrite it. If this comes as a surprise to you, you obviously haven’t been paying attention as we’ve been working our way through Mark’s gospel!

After this, Jesus says, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him.” He lists a litany of wicked attitudes and behaviors—sexual sins, violent sins, sins of speech, sinful habits of thinking. He says that these sins come “from within, out of the heart of man.” And when they do, they defile the person who commits them.

The Pharisees thought that the primary problem was outside of a person. They believed that if you could put him or her in the right environment, free from evil influences, then he or she would turn out a good person. All you need is to separate people from the corrupt Greco-Roman culture. To the Pharisees, the law was a tool to make people holy. And apparently, the disciples bought into that way of thinking, because Jesus’ perspective is completely foreign to them.

We can’t come down too hard on the disciples. From birth, we’re raised to think just like Pharisees. We’re told that people are basically good deep down, and that if children are raised in the right environment and surrounded by the right people and given the right education, then they’ll turn out okay. And of course, these things do help. However, they don’t change the reality that the human heart is a fountain of evil desires. Our culture’s presuppositions are wrong: people are corrupt and depraved, down to the very core of their being. Trying to make people holy by tying them down with rules—even God’s law!—just won’t work. The cancer is within us; it’s genetic, and we can’t cure it. Our own good behavior won’t help. There is no hope.

We’ve seen that Jesus is the only one who knows how to interpret and use God’s law with wisdom. He knows that the law is a reflection of God’s character. It tells us who he is—that he is holy—and it commands us to be like him (Leviticus 19:2). And Jesus knows that this is a lost cause; we can’t do it.

If there’s any possible way to be accepted by God, that way is going to have to be through Jesus. It’s obvious that he is a singular piercing light in a dark and hopeless world. If there’s any way out of our slavery to sin, it will have to come through the gospel—the good news that Jesus brings.

Run, John, run, the law commands,
But gives us neither feet nor hands;
Far better news the gospel brings:
It bids us fly and gives us wings.
—John Bunyan

Jesus is not impressed with your rules (Mark 7:1–13)

Ah, legalism.

We’ve faced this issue before as we’ve worked our way through Mark. We’re facing it today, as we reach chapter 7. And we’ll face it again if we keep going as we have. It’s the sinister old enemy of Jesus; it’s the brainchild of the devil. Oddly enough, it’s perpetuated by the most well-meaning people.

Jesus has been working miracles left and right, proving that he is more than a man. Mark has been threading subtle hints of deity into his account of Jesus’ life. Now, Jesus is about to remind the religious leaders who oppose him that they have no right to claim divine authority, as he has done.

The Pharisees of Galilee have once again called up some teachers of the law from Jerusalem. They’re calling in the big guns to take down Jesus. They soon find a reason to criticize him—he doesn’t seem to care that his disciples never wash their hands before they eat! Now, the religious leaders aren’t concerned about their hygiene, bad as it is. Ceremonial washing is very important to the Pharisees because it’s one of the ways in which the Jews can set themselves apart from the corrupt and godless Gentiles. In the law of Moses, given by God at Sinai, washing was commanded for the priests to ceremonially cleanse themselves from defilement. The Pharisees, zealous to preserve the identity of God’s people, have decided to beef up God’s law a little by adding a few safeguards to it. If everybody washes their hands all the time, then there’s no danger of being defiled. The Pharisees’ motives seem to be pretty good—they want to keep God’s people from being corrupted by the immoral influences of the surrounding culture.

Jesus, however, isn’t a fan. He calls them “hypocrites.” He says that there are two things wrong with people inventing their own moral laws which they expect others to follow. First, when people invent their own rules, they replace God’s law with their own. Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13 to make his point:

This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.

The Pharisees think they’re worshiping God. They think they’re protecting his law by buttressing it with their own. But what they’re really doing is replacing his law with “the commandments of men.” They’re trying to worship God in a way which he has not authorized. In fact, their respect for tradition has mutated into idolatry. By insisting on following man-made moral rules, they have set up man in God’s place.

And that leads Jesus to the second reason why it’s wrong for people to invent their own moral laws. He offers this caustic remark: “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” He’s telling the Pharisees that not only are they replacing God’s law with their own, they’re also rejecting God’s law outright! Not only are they exalting human tradition, but they’re also trying to dethrone or “de-God” God. Jesus backs his statement with this evidence: the Pharisees allow grown children to ignore their parents’ needs by declaring their own possessions to be Corban, devoted to God. So then they can refuse to provide for their parents, which violates the commandment to “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12). The man-made law nullifies God’s law. Nor is this an isolated incident; Jesus says to them, “Many such things you do.” He could rattle off a whole list of other examples if they’d ask him. Somehow, I have the feeling that they aren’t in the mood to hear more.

As I’ve considered what Jesus said, I’m shocked at how hard he comes down on the Pharisees. He absolutely rips into them. He calls them hypocrites; he beats them over the head with scripture; he pierces them with sarcasm; he accuses them of rejecting God. Jesus loathes what they are teaching—how they are undermining the moral authority of God himself. He spares them no mercy.

So be very afraid. Inside of you and me there is a little legalist, always scheming, always inventing new laws to make us look more righteous and usurp God’s authority. And these laws always seem to be invented for good reasons. The inner legalist might provoke a fundamentalist Christian to declare that drinking alcohol is a sin, or to castigate young women because hemlines of their skirts are above the knee. The inner legalist might provoke a progressive young believer to declare that anyone who doesn’t recycle is immoral or (ironically) to ridicule Christians who won’t drink alcohol. Legalism and the worship of human tradition is a problem for young and old, men and women, believer and unbeliever, across all human traditions and cultures. Deep down, all of us possess a sinful impulse to dethrone God and take his place.

Because Jesus came to establish God’s kingdom, he will not stand idly by as people try to destroy it. He is not impressed with your kingdom. He is not impressed with your rules. And he has the authority to put an end to your insurrection. So let’s abandon our attempt to be lawmakers and instead submit with joy to the only one who can save our rebel hearts.

Jesus is a threat to those in power (Mark 6:7–30)

We’re now going to travel from the small, backwater village where Jesus was born to the heart of political power in his homeland—the palace of Herod Antipas, governor of Galilee. This has been a tough journey for me, though. The passage we’re looking at today is difficult: the storyline is easy to understand, but the way Mark structures it makes it a real challenge to figure out the meaning of these events. I’ll share what I believe is happening, and if you have any other ideas or questions or suggestions, feel free to leave a comment!

What makes this a challenge is that it’s yet another “sandwich story.” Mark records that Jesus has begun commissioning the Twelve, his “inner circle” among his disciples, to act as his emissaries throughout the region. They set out on their various journeys, but before they return, Mark decides to relate the story of how Herod had put John the Baptist to death. This is very odd! Mark is not the kind of guy who likes to waste words. Why does he go into such great detail about an event that doesn’t seem to be relevant? (This is one of the most detailed stories in Mark’s gospel so far!) How does this inner story in the “sandwich” help us interpret what’s going on in the outer story?

The first key is to understand what Jesus is sending his disciples to do. He calls them to himself and sends them out in pairs, giving them “authority over the unclean spirits.” We find out a few verses down that they’re also healing the sick and preaching that people should repent of their sins. But the focus is on exorcism. Since Mark likes to focus on the fact that preaching was Jesus’ top priority, it should surprise us that he is commissioning the disciples for war against the unclean spirits. Even more surprising, he’s not equipping them very well! They are to travel light, depending on the generosity of people who are receptive to what they have to say. They are utterly dependent on the Lord to take care of them. At the same time, Jesus gives them authority to condemn anyone who rejects them, telling them, “Shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” This is what Jews did when leaving unclean Gentile territory. In effect, the disciples would be saying, “God does not have any people here for his kingdom.”

The disciples’ dependence accentuates their authority. They are weak, but they are accomplishing great things as emissaries of Jesus. So word quickly spreads, and rumors begin to fly about who this Jesus fellow is. He could be a prophet, or even Elijah come back. But Herod, the governor, is fixated on another explanation. He thinks that Jesus is John the Baptist, and he speaks as a guilty man when he says, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

Of all the possible ideas of who Jesus could be, why does Herod obsess over this unlikely one? Well, Mark goes into a lot of detail to explain why. John had criticized Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias (who had divorced her husband to marry Herod). This was illegal according to the law of Moses (Leviticus 18:16), and John called them out on it. So Herod imprisoned him, though he didn’t want to kill him. Herodias and her daughter, however, trapped Herod and forced his hand. So John was put to death. Now, notice how many times Mark talks about Herod’s psychological state! He tells us, “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.” When Herodias’ daughter did a little dirty dancing for his birthday party, she “pleased Herod.” In a rash and presumably drunken euphoria, Herod swore to her that he would give her whatever she asked. When she demanded the head of John the Baptist as a gift, Herod “was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her.” So he had John executed. Happy freaking birthday, Herod.

Now, Mark’s a guy, so he doesn’t like talking about people’s feelings. Yet here, he practically has Herod lying on a couch to be psychoanalyzed! Why? Because he wants you and me to understand what Herod is feeling. Herod knows he is guilty of John’s death; he knows that he had killed a “righteous and holy man” because of his own foolishness and pride, and ultimately because of his own sexual sin. He is ashamed because of his guilt. So when he hears about a man traveling throughout Galilee with disciples in tow, performing great miracles and preaching about a new “kingdom,” his thoughts immediately go to John the Baptist. He becomes irrationally fixated on this idea that John has come back from the dead. (And, in a sense, he’s right—a lot of what happened to John in this story is a close parallel to what’s going to happen to Jesus.)

The thought of John’s resurrection must fill him with fear. Herod knows that he is guilty of adultery and murder. God’s kingdom and its emissaries are a threat, because he will come under the judgment of the Lord’s anointed king. To people who are in power, Jesus is a threat. He insists on his own authority over men and demons, wind and waves, disease and death. A petty tyrant like Herod doesn’t stand a chance.

So which side will you be on? Will you join Herod in trying to cling to your own authority, your own way of doing life? Will you keep running your business your way, or leading your family your way, or handling your money your way? Or will you become dependent on Jesus, trusting him, obeying him, and clothing yourself in his authority? I’d suggest that you pick the side whose King came back from the dead.

Jesus has power over disease and death (Mark 5:21–43)

When I began working through the gospel of Mark, my main goal was to know Jesus better. Today’s passage has become precious to me because it’s one of those places in scripture where I’ve encountered Jesus in a unique way. Meeting Jesus here led me to the point of tears as I see the love that he has for his people. I wish I could communicate it in the space of about four minutes, but it’s simply not possible. It takes deep contemplation and imagination and questioning of the text to mine this rich vein of gold.

If you grew up attending Sunday School, the details of this story are familiar. The ruler of a local Jewish synagogue, a man by the name of Jairus, asks Jesus to heal his sick daughter. On the way, a woman sneaks up on Jesus from behind, touches his clothes, and is healed of a menstrual discharge that has plagued her for twelve years. Jairus finds out that his daughter has died, but Jesus goes to his house and raises her from the dead.

Here’s something that should give us pause, though: this is another one of Mark’s “sandwich stories.” Mark begins the story of Jairus’ daughter, interrupts it to tell about the woman, then finishes the story of Jairus’ daughter. The sandwiched, inner story of the woman should help us understand something important about the outer story that we wouldn’t have known otherwise. So how does the story of this suffering woman unlock the story of Jairus and his daughter?

There’s something odd about this inner story: it’s so mundane at first. Jesus has healed many diseased people before, and many of them have “pressed around to touch him” (Mark 3:10). What’s so special about this woman? Well, first of all, she is unusually desperate. She has been suffering menstrual bleeding for twelve years straight and has spent all her money on doctors who have only made the problem worse. Her bleeding makes her unclean according to the law of Moses, so for the last twelve years she has been somewhat isolated from her friends and family. Jesus is her last hope, her only hope. She dares to believe that he can save her from her suffering with a single touch: “If I touch even his garments I will be saved.” And sure enough, she feels his power course through her body and heal her at once.

At the same time, Jesus feels power flow out from him, and at once he demands to know who touched him. The disciples are incredulous—“You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’” As though no one had ever done this before! Yet Jesus persists, and the woman comes forward, falls down before him, and tells him everything. She has felt his immense power surging through the depths of her being; she knows what he is capable of doing; and she is terrified. Will Jesus be furious at her for interrupting his urgent mission to Jairus’ house? Will he be horrified that an unclean woman has contaminated him?

“Daughter,” he says to her, “your faith has saved you.” He isn’t upset at her. He loves her—loves her as though she were his own daughter. He is thrilled to see how bold her faith is, bold enough to inconvenience him. She believed he could save her, and he is glad to give her what she spent twelve years longing for. “Go in peace, and be healed of your disease,” he says.

Now, here’s where we get back to Jairus’ story, because at that very moment, messengers come from his house with terrible news: “Your daughter is dead.” Jairus must have been devastated. He was so close to finding help for her; the famous rabbi was on his way to heal her, and now—all is lost. He will never get her back. It’s too late. The messengers ask him, “Why trouble the Teacher any further?” But Jesus is listening in, and he says to Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.” And all at once, we understand why he insisted on speaking to the woman. It was for Jairus’ sake. Jesus wanted Jairus to see that he could believe in him. Jesus has power over disease and death; his authority is beyond that of any man. And he is eager to use that authority to help Jairus. There is no need to be afraid.

Jairus must have held on to a kernel of faith, because Jesus insists on showing up at his house, kicking out the hired mourners, and walking upstairs to where the girl lies dead. I love this scene! Jesus basically reaches out to her, takes her hand, and says to her, “Wake up, it’s time for lunch!” (If you don’t believe me, read verse 43!) As far as he’s concerned, “the child is not dead but sleeping”—no need to panic or anything. The people in the room are “overcome with amazement,” but Jesus is nonchalant about the whole thing. How can you not love him for that?

This story has a familiar ending: Jesus insists that the small circle of people in that room keep quiet about this. (I have no idea how they could!) This astounding experience is something special that he has given to those people who have faith. To the woman who got close to him and touched him, he gave her his power to save her from disease. To the parents of this girl, who believed in him even when all hope was lost, he gave them their daughter back. Those who mocked Jesus are left on the outside, wondering what just took place. They don’t get to see that Jesus has power over disease and death.

I urge you—come close to Jesus. He wants you to be with him. You feel unclean, unloved, but Jesus wants you to come to him to be washed in his blood, healed from your sin, clothed in his righteousness, raised to life again. Don’t be afraid. Only believe.