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.

Jesus is the enemy of legalists (Mark 3:1–6)

One of the challenges of creating a sequel to a good movie is that you have to preserve the feel of the first installment while upping the ante somehow. Sometimes, this is accomplished by exploring the personalities and relationships among the characters (such as The Empire Strikes Back). Sometimes, the stakes of the conflict are raised (Rocky II). And often, the director tries to wow the audience with stunts and special effects that top whatever the first movie contained (every Michael Bay sequel). In today’s passage, we’re going to find a bit of a sequel that does all three of these things.

Last week, as we continued our journey through Mark’s story, we saw the Pharisees getting upset at Jesus because his disciples were violating the Sabbath. Or at least, they were violating the rules the Pharisees had made up about the Sabbath. By turning to the authority of scripture, Jesus pointed out that God’s law was not meant to be an end in itself; rather, it was meant to be a means to help us obey our Lord. That Lord is Jesus himself. The Pharisees had made the mistake of putting law above Lawgiver.

Today, we once again find Jesus clashing with the Pharisees over how the Sabbath day should be observed. It’s the same premise as last week’s conflict. This time, though, we’re going to get a closer look into the mindset of Jesus and the mindset of his opponents. The confrontation will be public. And now Jesus is going to back up his claims with a miracle.

The last time Mark records Jesus speaking in a synagogue, he portrays Jesus as captivating his audience. Both his teaching and the exorcism which followed demonstrated an authority that the people had never seen before. At the time, everyone seems to have approved of Jesus, and he quickly gained celebrity status in the backwater region of Galilee. This time, however, not all of Jesus’ audience is receptive to what he has to say. Through all of chapter 2, Jesus has been questioned by the Pharisees, the Jewish religious leaders who are increasingly troubled by the God-like authority this man is claiming for himself. Now, the conflict reaches its first climax—a tense confrontation in a local synagogue.

When Jesus enters the synagogue, he sees a man there with a withered hand. It seems a little convenient that this man is showing up when all the Pharisees are there to watch Jesus. It’s possible that this man is a plant, placed by the Pharisees “to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him.” Regardless, Jesus is faced with a dilemma. Either he heals the man, doing “work” on the Sabbath and condemning himself before the religious leaders, or he ignores the man and does nothing to help him.

Jesus knows a trap when he sees one. He says to the man, “Come here.” The man stands up in the middle of the synagogue. Then, Jesus poses a question which pierces to the heart of the matter: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” With this rhetorical question, Jesus demonstrates the hypocrisy of his enemies. They have turned the Sabbath into a burden, weighing people down with rules that they have to keep if they’re going to be good Jews. Their rules would prevent this man from being healed! The Sabbath should not be a day of moral drudgery but a day of rest, healing, and reconnection with the Lord. God’s law liberates his people; man-made laws only enslave them.

Of course, the Pharisees can’t say anything in response. Then, Mark records, “He looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart.” Jesus responds with mixed emotions. On the one hand, he is furious at the Pharisees because they have perverted God’s law and are using their own laws to prevent a man from getting the healing he needs. Jesus is deeply offended by this self-righteous legalism. On the other hand, he is heartbroken that these religious leaders are so resistant to the good news that would free them from their bondage. He feels sorry for them as they wallow in their miserable condition.

“Stretch out your hand,” Jesus commands the man. He obeys, and the hand is restored to health. Jesus hasn’t done this just for the sake of the man; Mark makes it clear that he’s done it for the sake of the Pharisees. They need to see that the way of life promised by Jesus is superior to their own legalistic habits. They need to see the supremacy of Jesus. Following Jesus is not about inventing a bunch of rules to make you feel more righteous. It’s not about inventing ways to look good before God. It’s about following the God-given law of the Bible with a sincere, teachable heart. You must lay down your old way of living and follow Jesus, your new Lord. Your old wineskins can never hold his new wine without bursting apart.

Sadly, the Pharisees don’t get it. Mark tells us that “they went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” The Herodians wanted the Jews to conform to the pagan Roman culture; they stood for everything the Pharisees opposed. Yet the Pharisees joined forces with them to get rid of Jesus. And that’s the thing about legalism—eventually, it will lead you to align yourself with the enemies of Jesus and his gospel. You will inevitably find yourself opposed to his kingdom. This is the only path available to a self-righteous person who insists on inventing rules rather than following Jesus Christ.

Teaching with authority (Mark 1:16–31)

“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do.” “You can’t push your morality on me.” “You have no right to order me around.”

We just don’t like authority here in the West. In an increasingly cynical and postmodern culture, people in authority are eyed with suspicion. Authority threatens our sense of autonomy. Even in the church, the role of authority has been questioned—to the point where the bestselling Christian novel, The Shack, has denounced authority as inherently evil. We just don’t like the idea that someone can waltz into our lives and demand that we drop everything and do what he commands.

Maybe that’s part of the reason we have such a big problem following Jesus. He is not afraid to insist on his own authority.

Take a look at today’s passage in Mark. The first scene opens with Jesus walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a deep lake known for its excellent fishing. He sees two sets of fishermen working the family business, calls to them and commands them to follow him, and they obey. Mark doesn’t really get into the backstory of these men (though John’s gospel explains that they already knew who Jesus was). Mark simply offers us a scene so abrupt, so startling, that we are left wondering, “What man possesses authority so great that he simply asks a handful of fisherman to leave their lifelong family business in order to follow him around?” Jewish Rabbis didn’t seek out followers; their followers sought them. Yet here is Jesus, walking up to these men and staking his claim on their lives. As far as he was concerned, they belonged to him. He owned them.

Do you find that last sentence a little threatening? I’m an American citizen, and odds are that you are as well. We like to think we’re free; we like to think that nobody has the right to order us around. The problem is, Jesus has that right. “Follow me,” he insists, “and I will make you become fishers of men.” There is a threatening beauty to Jesus’ statement: it is a command followed by a promise. To men who have no greater ambition than to make money and pass on the family occupation, Jesus offers something far greater. “You won’t be fishing for fish anymore. No, I will turn you into someone who fishes for people. The gospel of the kingdom that you’ve heard me proclaim is the gospel that you will proclaim.” Jesus gives them a new destiny, providing a sense of meaning and purpose to their lives that they have never had before.

So what do Simon, Andrew, James, and John do? Jesus says, “Follow,” so they follow. They leave their jobs and their families and obey him at once. That’s the sort of authority Jesus has.

With his disciples in tow, Jesus shows up in the town of Capernaum along the seashore. He arrives in the local synagogue on the Sabbath day and is invited to teach. When he does, he astonishes everyone there because he teaches them with authority, “and not as the scribes.” The scribes were the local teachers of the law, who would simply parrot what other teachers had said about the Old Testament. Not Jesus! He steps up and teaches his own ideas, and he teaches them with the air of someone who is perfectly within his rights to order you around.

However, there is someone in attendance who doesn’t want to be ordered around. A man with an “unclean spirit”—a demon—tries to shout Jesus down. He wants to shut down Jesus’ teaching, so he instigates a confrontation, shrieking, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” The unclean spirit is attempting to wrest control of the situation from Jesus. He goes on the offensive with three statements. First, he demands that Jesus leave him and his demonic comrades alone. Second, he announces that he knows Jesus’ plan—to destroy him and his fellow spirits, who have been harassing the people of Galilee. Third, he knows Jesus’ secret identity. He is “the Holy One of God”—someone with a special relationship with God, if not the Messiah himself! The unclean spirit pulls out all the stops to gain control over Jesus.

Jesus will have none of it. “Be silent, and come out of him!” he demands. Jesus had been teaching, the spirit had tried to shout him down, and now Jesus shuts up the spirit. This demon leaves the man with one final act of defiance, “crying out with a loud voice.” And then—silence. Jesus has the stage to himself. The crowd is astounded—this is a man of impossible authority! And notice the emphasis in the text: “a new teaching with authority”! Jesus’ victory over the unclean spirit demonstrates that his teaching really does have authority. Jesus really does have the right to tell you and me what to do. He’s not afraid to use that right. He owns us.

But the next scene shows the beauty of this authority. After that day’s incredible encounter in the synagogue, Jesus spends the afternoon at Simon’s house. While he is there, his disciples tell him that Simon’s mother-in-law is sick with a fever. Here, we find the first act of faith in Mark’s gospel. The disciples see that Jesus had the authority to drive out an unclean spirit. Maybe he has enough authority to heal her from this dangerous fever! They ask Jesus if he will do something about it.

Think about this. Here is a man with an authority they have never witnessed before. They have no right to demand him to perform a miracle of healing. He is perfectly within his rights to refuse them. Yet Jesus approaches the bed, takes the woman by the hand, and lifts her up. The fever leaves her, and she is finally able to show hospitality to her guests. Jesus wasn’t forced to heal her—he chose to heal her. He uses his authority for our good. He wants to heal us; he wants to free us; he wants to give us a new destiny.

Yes, his authority threatens us. And it’s a lovely sort of threat.