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Jesus has come to be humiliated, though he is the saving King (Mark 15:16–32) — September 11, 2011

Jesus has come to be humiliated, though he is the saving King (Mark 15:16–32)

When Jesus comes to claim his throne, a coronation ceremony is held. But it’s not meant to honour him. It’s meant to disgrace him.

Jesus has been betrayed by the leaders of his own people; now their Roman overlords have sentenced him to death. He has been identified as “King of the Jews” by the Romans. This would be their way of calling him the Messiah, God’s anointed king. The Gentile soldiers bring him into the palace and gather the whole battalion around him. Before this assembly, they dress him in a royal robe of expensive purple dye, place a crown on his head, salute him as they would their Caesar, and kneel down in homage to him.

The catch is that his crown is a wreath of twisted thorns whose spikes are pressed into his skull. Their salutation, “Hail, King of the Jews!” is a sarcastic barb. When they kneel, it’s meant as nothing more than a charade. They strike him on the head with a reed and spit on him. Even the lowliest conscript in the Roman army can slap him around without consequence. They can defy the man who claims to be God, just as the serpent in Eden promised, “You will not surely die” (Genesis 3:4).

They strip Jesus of the royal garments and lead him away to an ominous hill—Golgotha, or Skull Place. He is so weakened by the scourgings that another man is forced to carry his cross for him. But when Jesus arrives at Golgotha, he refuses to drink any wine. Whatever he is about to face, he will do so without an anesthetic.

Mark records simply, “They crucified him.” They hoist him on a wooden cross and nail his hands and feet to it. Mark doesn’t need to write any more, because crucifixion is a horrible and shameful death, practically taboo in polite company. The empire of Rome means it to be a public spectacle. It demonstrates that this man, once a rebel against the empire, has now been crushed under the boot of Caesar. When Jesus is crucified, Rome is saying that he is nothing more than a man, a subject of the empire. He has no property to call his own, not even his clothes—the soldiers gamble over who will get to keep them. His crime is posted for all to see: “The King of the Jews.”

Make no mistake: Jesus is not being crucified for being a good moral teacher. No one gets crucified for telling people to love each other. Jesus’ message runs much deeper than that. Mark summarizes it with these words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). When asked by the Jewish leaders whether he was the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus has replied, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). Jesus is crucified for claiming to be God’s anointed King over all the earth, and a divine King at that—the Son of God himself.

His disciples, James and John, once asked their King, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37). But now they are nowhere to be found. Instead, Rome crucifies two criminals with Jesus, “one on his right and one on his left.”  These are the royal members of his court. His audience passes by and ridicules him by shouting, “Ha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” The religious leaders join them: “He saved others; he cannot save himself!” This man is no Saviour. He is no King.

Look at this horrible spectacle of a bleeding, dying criminal! To think that anyone had faith in this man! “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down from the cross that we may see and believe,” they taunt him. And then, even the criminals who are crucified with him begin to revile him. Jesus is humiliated and condemned by everyone—Jew and Gentile, ruler and criminal, priest and sinner.

Why does his coronation look like this? Why the shame without even a trace of honour? It is because Jesus must be validated as King through shame, suffering, and death. Here in God’s world, “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43–44). By becoming the lowest man in the world, Jesus has established that he is the greatest. And by refusing to save himself, he is able “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Perhaps today Jesus is well-liked and popular and a good teacher. But he remained on the cross, bleeding and dying, to save a people for his own kingdom. That is why he is Lord.

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 be betrayed, though he is worthy of the highest honour (Mark 14:1–11) — May 30, 2011

Jesus has come to be betrayed, though he is worthy of the highest honour (Mark 14:1–11)

In the village of Bethany, two days before the Passover, there is a man named Judas, part of Jesus’ inner circle of twelve disciples. There is also a woman, who is not valued as highly in that culture simply because she is not a man like Judas. She isn’t an insider like Judas is. Mark doesn’t even tell us her name.

The man, Judas, is a clever, calculating, ambitious individual who is looking for a way to earn money. He’s an entrepreneur, of sorts. The woman is impulsive, irrational, and wasteful. She’s about to lose a lot of money and look like an idiot in the process.

Judas is about to make a lot of people very happy; he’s going to win the approval of a lot of prestigious men in high society. The woman is found in the house of a former leper, where she’s going to make a lot of people furious at her.

And while the woman anoints Jesus for burial, Judas digs his own grave. Judas’ actions will lead to eternal shame and his premature end, while the woman’s actions will lead to an eternal legacy. Why? Because Judas hates Jesus and is looking for a way to betray him, but the woman loves Jesus and remains fiercely loyal to him.

This is another one of Mark’s “sandwich stories.” As the author of this account of Jesus’ life, Mark will often begin by telling Story A, then interrupt it with Story B, then return to finish Story A. He does this because without Story B, you won’t understand the meaning of Story A the way that Mark wants you to understand it.

Story A is a story of conspiracy and betrayal. The “chief priests and scribes”—the political, social, and religious leaders of the Jews—want to arrest and kill Jesus. The problem is that Jesus is wildly popular, especially among his Galilean countrymen who have arrived in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. These leaders don’t want to incite the crowds into a riot, because they’re afraid of how the occupying Roman government will respond.

They catch their break when one of Jesus’ inner circle of twelve disciples approaches them. Judas Iscariot, on his own initiative, offers to turn Jesus over to them. He knows where Jesus will be when the crowds aren’t around. The Jewish leaders are thrilled and promise to pay Judas for betraying his rabbi to them.

Interrupting this sinister turn of events is a beautiful story of devotion. Jesus is staying at the home of a former leper named Simon. Simon lives in a small village outside of Jerusalem named Bethany. As Jesus and his disciples are eating dinner, a woman enters the room—a major faux pas according to local custom! She hurries over to Jesus, carrying an expensive alabaster flask. She shatters the flask and pours its entire contents on Jesus’ head. The whole room is filled with the smell of nard, an insanely expensive perfume from India.

I’m sure that this would rank among the top five awkward moments in Jesus’ ministry. The dinner guests are in shock. As they realize what this woman has done, they begin to grow angry. “Why was the ointment wasted like that?” they begin to ask themselves. “This ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor!” A denarius was about how much money a Jewish laborer would have earned in for a day’s work. In other words, this jar of perfume was worth a year’s salary for the average Jewish man! It was probably a family heirloom—how else could this woman possess an object of such value?

And what a waste! Think of all the good things that could have been done with that money! It could have fed a colony of homeless and starving people. And yet this woman simply dumps it all out and even breaks the jar! What a foolish, impulsive thing to do!

They dinner guests lash out at the woman. They let her know what a stupid and wasteful thing she has done. And apparently the poor woman is reduced to tears, because Jesus jumps to her defense: “Leave her alone! Why do you trouble her?”

Here’s where the values of God’s kingdom and the values of the world are clashing with one another. “She has done a beautiful thing,” Jesus tells his disciples. “She has done what she could.” It is a good thing to be generous to the poor, but it is a better thing to lavish honour upon Jesus, because he won’t be with them for long. In fact, he tells them, “She has anointed my body beforehand for burial.” He is going to be killed as a criminal, and she is sparing him the shame of being buried as a criminal, in an unceremonial manner. And Jesus stuns his disciples by telling them, “Truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

This little speech was the final straw as far as Judas was concerned. That very night, he promises to betray Jesus to his enemies.

As evil as Judas’ behavior is, and as wonderful as the woman’s actions are, the story isn’t about them. It’s about Jesus. If Jesus is simply another man, a great teacher or a prophet, then the woman’s actions are stupid and wasteful, and he is a narcissist for praising her. That’s the way Judas sees it, because he doesn’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. He doesn’t believe that Jesus is God’s anointed King. He doesn’t believe that Jesus is worthy of the highest honour.

Make no mistake, Jesus deserves much more than an alabaster flask filled with perfume. He deserves our entire affection and allegiance. This woman gave it to him, and he praised her for it. In turn, he gave his whole life for her and for all who believe in him as Savior and Lord. He came not to receive honour but to be betrayed. That is why he is worthy of the highest honour we can give him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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