Jesus is God with us (Mark 6:45–56)

My favorite TV show this year is Fringe, and I love the tagline for this past season: “New cases. Endless impossibilities.” There’s something about it that resonates with me. Maybe it reminds me a little of Mark’s account of Jesus’ life. It seems that every day there is a new miracle, a new impossibility that actually happens. Today’s impossibility: Jesus walks on water.

This takes place the night following the miraculous dinner party he threw for 5,000 men, feeding the whole crowd in an afternoon with five loaves of bread and two fish. Afterward, Jesus hurries his disciples away in a boat, telling them to travel across the Sea of Galilee to the town of Bethsaida. He dismisses the crowd and goes up on a mountain to pray. As he spends time with God, he looks out over the lake and sees his disciples’ boat off in the distance. They’re not making good time. The wind against them is strong, they are weary after a long day without rest, and the act of rowing is torture to their exhausted bodies.

The disciples fight on, rowing late into the early morning, until sometime before sunrise they catch sight of something that sends a shiver down their spines. It appears to be a man, walking alongside them on the surface of the lake! All of them feel a horrible sensation in the pit of their stomach—no man can walk across water like that.

A ghost!

No doubt they’ve all heard ghost stories as kids and laughed about them as adults. But now the unimaginable is happening—some sort of spirit is coming closer to them, and there is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. They panic, and some of them cry out in terror.

Then the phantom speaks to them, “Take courage! I am. Don’t be afraid.” They know that voice. This is no ghost; it’s Jesus! They’re safe after all. He walks toward them, climbs into the boat, and the wind dies down at once. Their night of torment and terror has ended.

Mark writes that the disciples are “utterly astounded” by the whole situation. My first instinct is to say that’s perfectly reasonable—wouldn’t we all be shocked? But that’s not the conclusion Mark draws. Instead, he tells us that the only reason the disciples are astounded is because they missed an important message when Jesus multiplied the loaves of bread the day before. Instead, “their hearts were hardened.” The last time Mark used that figure of speech, he was talking about the religious leaders who opposed Jesus despite his obvious miracles (3:5). Now he’s using it to describe Jesus’ disciples. They didn’t “get it” when Jesus supernaturally fed the crowd of 5,000 men.

So what did they miss? Why shouldn’t they have been surprised to see Jesus strolling across a lake? Well, there are a couple of clues in this story that tell us why Jesus did this. First, Mark says that “he meant to pass by them.” This seems odd on the face of it, but it should bring to mind a couple of incidents from the Old Testament. On two occasions, when God showed himself to Moses and Elijah, he “passed by” them, revealing his glory and especially his compassion (Exodus 34:6; 1 Kings 19:11). And also in the Old Testament, Job says that God “trampled the waves of the sea…he passes by me, and I see him not” (Job 9:8, 11). The wording is eerily similar to Mark’s, especially in the original languages. The point is that, by “passing by” them on the water, Jesus is offering his disciples a theophany—a glimpse of the glory of God. The second clue is that he assures his disciples, “I am.” It’s an unmistakable echo of Exodus 3:14, where God tells Moses that his name is “I Am.”

When he fed the crowd the day before, Jesus revealed himself to be the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23. And anyone who reads verse 1 of that psalm knows the identity of that Good Shepherd. But the disciples didn’t get it. They don’t understand that Jesus is more than a man. They don’t understand that when they see his compassion and his mighty works, they are seeing the compassion and mighty works of their God. Jesus is Immanuel—God with us (Isaiah 7:14).

Just to hammer the point home, Jesus embarks on a massive healing campaign once they reach the land. People come from the whole region to be healed. It is enough to touch “even the fringe of his garment”! There is no mistaking it: Jesus is telling the truth about who he is.

Here’s what seems to be holding back the disciples from understanding. It’s not that they think that God doesn’t exist. It’s not that they think he doesn’t have authority to do anything. They just don’t think that he has come to dwell with them and that he might actually exercise his authority on their behalf. They don’t understand that the inscrutable and enigmatic God of Job has now come to be with them, to reveal himself to them, and to help them. They’ve already decided that those sorts of things don’t happen. Five loaves of bread aren’t enough to feed five thousand men. Nobody can just walk across a lake.

Jesus absolutely baffles his disciples because he explodes their cynical worldview. He simply hands out five loaves and a whole crowd is fed. He wants to get to the other side of the lake, so he just walks across it. No big deal.

My prayer today is that you and I would consider Jesus and come to know him better. May God give us understanding to end our cynicism, so that we welcome and expect endless impossibilities.

His Dwelling Among Us (Part 2 of 2)

Although the description of the tabernacle is one of those sections of the Old Testament that we’re tempted to skip over when we’re reading through the Bible, this was a part of Israel’s history that is critical to understanding and relating to God and to his Son, Jesus Christ.  In the last post, we saw that the tabernacle was inconvenient and dangerous for the children of Israel, but that it was the only way to God.  The reason that the Lord had them build the tabernacle was so that there could be a place where a holy God could dwell with a sinful people whom he loved.  The tabernacle simultaneously affirms that the Lord is holy and that the Lord is loving; he is both transcendent and immanent.

Eventually, the tabernacle—a royal tent, but a tent nonetheless—was replaced by a far grander temple constructed by King Solomon.  Solomon made sure to replicate many of the features of the tabernacle; even the proportions were kept the same, with the Holy of Holies remaining a perfect cubic shape, just as in the tabernacle.  The Jerusalem temple was one of the most glorious buildings ever constructed, and when it was finished, “the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD” (1 Kings 8:11).

Eventually, this temple was destroyed, but it was merely a shadow of what was to come.  God sent his only son, Jesus Christ, who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).  Jesus became the ultimate tabernacle or temple; in fact, he referred to his own body as a temple (John 2:21).  Finally, Immanuel had come—”God with us”!

Lion door knockerHowever, the great problem remained—how could we approach an infinitely holy God through this new tabernacle?  The answer was given when Jesus Christ died on the cross.  The book of Hebrews reminds us of the Old Testament’s “Day of Atonement,” a yearly event in the Israelite calendar (Leviticus 16).  On this day, the high priest would open a curtain within the tabernacle and bring the blood of a bull and a goat into the Holy of Holies and sprinkle it onto the golden mercy seat, the throne of God.  So when Christ died, he entered into heaven bearing his own blood, making atonement once for all with a far superior sacrifice (Hebrews 9).

Don’t lose sight of how remarkable it is that we can now stand in the presence of the Almighty!  Hebrews 10:19–22 reads:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

This was the sort of thing that would get you killed under the old covenant!  But under the new covenant inaugurated through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we can now boldly enter into the holy presence of God, confident that our sins have been atoned for by the blood of Jesus.  What an unimaginable blessing—and at what great cost!  “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1)!  Through faith in Christ we can enter into the presence of a God who loves us and welcomes us home.

Someday, this era of world history will come to an end.  “The heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!” (2 Peter 3:12).  But there will be a re-creation, a new heaven and a new earth.  In the book of Revelation, John saw a vision of a city descending from heaven—New Jerusalem.  And this city appeared as nothing less than an enormous cube, 1380 miles on each side, made of pure gold (Revelation 21:15–21).  The shape and material of this city recalls the shape and material of the tabernacle.  At long last God has come to dwell with man!  There is no temple in the city, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (v. 22).  There is no longer anything separating you and me from God; he has come to be with us, and we have been made holy, just as he is.

Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. (Revelation 21:3)

If you have placed your faith in Jesus Christ as the only way by which you can stand before God, through his blood shed for your sins, then this is the future that awaits you!  The Lord is eagerly waiting for the day when you will be presented holy and glorious in his presence.  Even now, he loves you dearly and has given everything he has to make you his own.  He longs to be with you.

His Dwelling Among Us (Part 1 of 2)

“You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20).

Is that the God you grew up knowing?

Or has your relationship with him been a little more…casual…than that?

When it comes to our perspective on God—on how we relate to him—we tend to err in one of two ways.  The first error is to focus exclusively on his transcendence.  We think of God as cold, distant, and uncaring.  He’s far away; he doesn’t love me very much; he merely tolerates me.  The second error is to focus exclusively on his immanence.  In other words, we always think of God as being close, familiar, and friendly.  He’s my divine buddy.  There really isn’t much standing between him and me.  He’s not particularly holy.

This is what happens when we try to melt down God and recast him into the shape of an idol—an idol that resembles a human figure.  However, despite our best efforts, the God of the Bible is both transcendent and immanent.  He is an awesome and holy God; he is also God with us.

Lion door knockerBut how?  How can a God who is so holy that he cannot stand the least sight of sin—so holy that anyone who looked him in the face would die on the spot—how can such a God remain with us?  If you’ve carefully read the book of Exodus, then you know that this is where the tabernacle comes in.  The tabernacle was a royal tent for God.  More than that, it was the place where a holy God could dwell with a sinful people whom he loved.  It was where the Lord would meet with man (Exodus 25:22).

If we really want to understand and appreciate the Lord’s holiness and love, we have to understand the tabernacle.  Here’s what the Old Testament teaches us about it:

  • The tabernacle was inconvenient. If you’ve ever struggled through the detailed instructions for building the tabernacle in Exodus 25–27, only to push through yet another account of its construction in 36–38, then you know what I’m talking about!  If it’s inconvenient to read about the tabernacle’s construction, how much more inconvenient was it to build it?  The same goes for the entire book of Leviticus, which contains numerous details regarding the sacrifices and rituals that were to be performed there.  The Lord’s presence among his people is tremendously inconvenient.
  • The tabernacle was dangerous. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu found this out the hard way in Leviticus 10.  They offered the wrong incense recipe on the altar inside the tabernacle, and were struck dead for it.  To enter into the inner room of the tabernacle—the Holy of Holies—each year was a fearsome responsibility for the high priest.  In fact, he had to fill the room with incense smoke so that he would not see the Lord and die (Leviticus 16:13).  All of the Lord’s instructions had to be followed to the letter in order for his people to gain access to him without dying.  The Lord’s presence among his people is tremendously dangerous.
  • The tabernacle was the only way to God. Where does Israel’s idolatry toward the golden calf take place in the book of Exodus?  As a matter of fact, it is sandwiched in between the Lord’s description of the tabernacle and the construction of the tabernacle.  This is not a coincidence.  The golden calf was Israel’s solution to how God could dwell among them; through it they could worship the Lord (Exodus 32:5).  But the Lord was incensed that they would try to come to him on their own terms, not on his terms.  The tabernacle may have been inconvenient and dangerous, but it was the only way that the Lord could dwell with his people.

Now, if I were in the Lord’s shoes, I know for certain that I wouldn’t have bothered.  I don’t care enough about other people to go through all that trouble.  What incredible love he showed!  Rather than taking the easy way out by remaining distant, he chose to dwell with the sinful and rebellious children of Israel.  The book of Exodus ends with the Lord guiding his people through the wilderness toward the Promised Land.  He has not changed; he loves his people today, and he longs to be with us.  And we have something far greater than an earthly tent by which we can gain access to God.  More on that in the next post.