Jesus has come to be abandoned, but he will never fail (Mark 14:26–52)

You will fail.

That’s not a popular message. The Atlantic recently featured an article by Lori Gottlieb entitled “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” in which the author explained that parents are afraid to let their children fail, because they’re afraid it will damage their self-esteem. The result is that their children are unable to adjust to the anxieties and difficulties of life outside of their parents’ umbrellas. After years of working with college students, I know firsthand that this is true. Parents are terrified that their children may fail and even be unhappy sometimes (gasp!).

Jesus, on the other hand, knows his disciples will fail him. Rather than shielding them from the fact, he tells them to their faces that they are weak and pathetic sheep.

Before Jesus was betrayed and crucified, Peter never struggled with self-esteem. He was a self-assured individual, not afraid to assert himself in front of Jesus. So when Jesus warns all the disciples, “You will all fall away,” Peter is not happy. Where is Jesus’ faith in me? he thinks. He announces, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” Rather than backing down, Jesus gets in Peter’s face. “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” Unfortunately, Peter’s self-esteem bubble still hasn’t been popped, and now the other disciples begin asserting their loyalty as well.

Their failure begins at Gethsemane. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John (his inner circle) deep into the garden. At this point, Mark writes, he “began to be greatly distressed and troubled.” The hour of his death has drawn near, and whatever is about to take place is overwhelming Jesus. He tells his inner circle, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” They are to stay alert and keep their eyes open for trouble.

Jesus prays on his own for a while, then returns to his disciples—and they have all fallen asleep. Jesus singles out Peter, telling him, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Twice more he leaves them to pray, and twice more they fall asleep.

As if this weren’t enough, a mob approaches them, led by Judas, one of Jesus’ closest friends. Judas identifies Jesus by greeting him with a kiss—a horrible act of betrayal! Chaos ensues; Jesus is seized and arrested, swords are drawn and swung around wildly. “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me?” Jesus protests. They are treating him like a common criminal.

As soon as his disciples realize that Jesus will not be resisting arrest, Mark records, “they all left and fled” with their tails between their legs. Most shameful of all is the desertion of a young man who would rather run away naked than stay with his Lord during his darkest hour.

The failure of the disciples is total. They begin the evening by boasting of their loyalty, then fall asleep while their Lord suffers and desert him when confronted by a mob. Their boasting only aggravates their shame.

Were it up to our own strength, you and I would abandon Jesus as quickly as his disciples do. “The flesh is weak,” and we are afraid of what other people can do to us. You and I have nothing to boast about.

God is leading us to esteem not ourselves but Jesus. At the centre of these events, we are allowed to listen in on his “loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). He calls out, “Abba! Father! All things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me!” He pleads with his Father to take away the “cup of the wine of wrath” (Jeremiah 25:15) from which rebels against God are forced to drink. No doubt his words “watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” are not meant merely for his disciples but himself. He resists temptation and chooses to follow the will of his Father, conceding, “Not what I will, but what you will.”

Each of Jesus’ disciples failed to “deny himself and take up his cross” (Mark 8:34). None of them submitted himself to the will and authority of God. But Jesus has done it perfectly. He is the only man who has.

You may think that you are a loyal and faithful servant of God. But you are much weaker than you think; you are easily tempted away from doing his will. This is why you need Jesus. He sought another way—any other way—to accomplish the mission God gave him. But he never wavered in his commitment to doing what his Father required. If you trust him instead of yourself, his goodness and faithfulness is what God sees when he looks at you. He doesn’t focus on your failures but on the success of his Son, who became a man to represent you and become “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:9).

God knew you would fail him when he chose to save you. That’s why he gave you Jesus.

Jesus has come to expose pretentious “disciples,” so don’t be too impressed with yourself (Mark 12:35–44)

If you want to show off the strength of a movie hero, you have his opponents launch brutal attacks on him which he easily deflects, then have him crush them with his own blows.

The gloves are about to come off. It’s time for Jesus to take the offensive against his opponents.

Up till now in Mark’s account of Jesus’ life, the religious leaders of the Jews have been trying to find ways to disgrace Jesus. They feel threatened by his popularity, and they (correctly) suspect that he believes himself to be the long-awaited Christ, the Messiah or anointed king sent by God himself to rule on the throne of his ancestor, David.

Unfortunately for them, everything Jesus says and does has been unimpeachable. “He has done all things well!” the astonished crowds are saying (7:37). He has been perfect in every way. So they’ve tried to trap him in his words, getting him to say something that will expose him as a fool or as a threat to their Roman overlords. But Jesus has answered their questions wisely and uncovered their own ignorance.

Now, Jesus shifts tactics. His opponents are too afraid to interrogate him anymore. So he begins teaching the crowd in the temple, the seat of his enemies’ power. He quotes for them a verse from Psalm 110, which describes the coronation of God’s anointed king:

The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet.”

This psalm was written by David, and it features the Lord God speaking to the king he will appoint. Now, so far, this fits well with what the scribes (the religious teachers) have told their people about the Messiah. He is a king descended from David. But Jesus then points out, “David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” You don’t call your son your master.

So, as Jesus has asked, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David?” His point isn’t that the Christ is not a descendant of David. Rather, his point is that he is more than that. He is not just a great king; he is the great King. The scribes haven’t accounted for this. They’re supposed to be able to recognize the Messiah, but how can they possibly recognize him if they are clueless about who he really is? Jesus has exposed the scribes, shredding their supposed knowledge; they have an inadequate grasp of who the Messiah is. It’s no surprise that they’ve rejected Jesus.

Not only do they have an inadequate grasp of the Messiah, but the religious leaders also behave in wicked ways. Jesus continues, “Beware of the scribes!”—and lists a series of charges against them. They behave in an arrogant manner, wanting others to look up to them. They even take advantage of the financial resources of widows. Jesus declares, “They will receive the greater condemnation.” For a Jew, this would have been a shocking statement. Most Jews looked up to the scribes as holy and learned men. But Jesus is telling the crowd to beware of them! They have been placed in a position of great privilege, having a tremendous knowledge of the scriptures and a deep respect from the people. But they’ve abused their prestige. And all who associate themselves with the scribes, imitating them rather than being wary of them, will find themselves sharing in their condemnation.

The religious leaders not only behave in wicked ways, but even their supposedly righteous deeds are not as impressive as they appear to be. We next find Jesus sitting in the outer court of the temple, watching people drop their donations into the offering box. There are plenty of rich people pouring huge sums of money into the box, but it’s a poor widow who attracts Jesus’ attention. She drops in two lepta, copper coins that were nearly worthless. Jesus pulls his disciples together at once and tells them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box.”

Now, if that’s not an upside-down statement, I don’t know what is! Jesus explains, “For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

This woman’s act of severe generosity exposes the religious leaders as frauds. Even if they were to donate huge sums of money to the temple, they could never match the piety of this poor widow, who gave her whole life to the Lord. And they will never be able to match Jesus himself, who will give his whole life as a sacrifice before the week is up. Their good deeds are just not that impressive.

You can become a leader in your church, graduate from seminary, teach from the Bible, earn the respect of your whole church and community, and still be a clueless and evil wretch, a false disciple who consistently opposes Jesus. The guy at your church who flips burgers for a living may be a much more holy and righteous person than you are. And no matter what, you can never match the righteousness of Jesus. When placed next to the cross, nothing you do is really all that impressive.

Deep within your heart is a stubborn pride which wants people to recognize you for what a great person you think you are.

But you’re not Jesus.

Jesus has come to be lowly, so you must be lowly like a child (Mark 10:13–16)

If you grew up in church, you probably know this children’s song by heart:

Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world!
Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world!

Maybe you never stopped to ask why Jesus likes children so much. Well, today’s your lucky day.

Jesus is continuing his journey south toward Jerusalem. He has announced to his disciples that he will be betrayed, suffer, and die, and then rise again from the dead. His disciples are struggling to understand how someone who is God’s anointed Messiah could suffer and die like that. It doesn’t make sense to them. As a result, they’re not picking up on the way Jesus’ lowly mission should change their attitudes.

Yet another opportunity to show their spiritual dullness arises when some of the people around Jesus get it into their heads to have him bless their children. They recognize that this is a man sent from God, and they long for God to favor little Jonney and Susie. So they start bringing all their babies and toddlers for Jesus to touch and bless.

Now, this seems okay to us, but Jesus’ disciples didn’t think it was appropriate. At the time, children weren’t valued much in Jewish culture. Most people made just enough money to put food on the table; another child meant another mouth to feed. I’m sure there were many good parents who loved and valued their children, but for the most part, having a child was considered an unfortunate necessity if you wanted a future adult who could take care of you and pass on your family name.

That’s the way Jesus’ disciples are thinking of children, so it’s no wonder that they’re rebuking the parents for wasting the Rabbi’s time. But when Jesus sees their response, he gets ticked. He confronts them, saying, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them!” Rather than viewing children as a waste of time, he wants them to be with him. Why? He explains, “For to such belongs the kingdom of God.”

Apparently, Jesus believes that people who are childlike are the people who will be a part of God’s coming kingdom. So in what way must a disciple of Jesus be like a child?

Perhaps our first response would be that disciples should be good and innocent like children. We tend to think of children as being basically wonderful little creatures who are later corrupted by outside influences. However, any parent knows that you don’t have to teach your children to be corrupt; they learn that on their own. You have to train them to be good. No one is innocent from birth, as the Israelite king David wrote: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). Besides, hasn’t Jesus invited wicked people like tax collectors to be with him (Mark 2:13–17)? It’s not moral purity that Jesus is looking for.

Neither is Jesus looking for a childlike naïveté. He doesn’t want his disciples to be unthinking and lacking in insight. On the contrary, he’s been frustrated at their dullness—“do you not perceive or understand?” (Mark 8:17).

No, there’s something about children that Jesus loves, and it’s the very thing that his culture hated about them. Children are helpless and useless. They seem to be a waste of time and resources. They tie you down and mess up your life dreams. They’re dependent and needy. That’s what Jesus loves about children.

Jesus isn’t looking for righteous people to be his disciples. In fact, he consistently rejects people who perceive themselves as “basically good people.” Neither is Jesus looking for naïve people. The truth is that Jesus wants useless, worthless, and lowly people. They’re the outcasts in this word, but when his kingdom comes, he will welcome them into it. Why? Because they recognize their need and cling to the one who became lowly for their sake. They are glad to identify with a lowly Messiah.

Jesus also delivers a warning to his disciples: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Anyone who claims to be a good person or who thinks highly of himself or wants approval from others will be shut out of God’s kingdom. Such a person doesn’t want to submit to Jesus’ authority. Such a person would never identify with a lowly Messiah.

Jesus shows his disciples what this looks like in practice. He welcomes the little children, picks them up, and blesses them warmly. He is not ashamed to be associated with the lowly.

Now, in Western culture, we do value children quite a bit. But we don’t value them for the reasons that Jesus did. We tend to value children because we perceive that they will be of some benefit to us. Typically, the child will become Mommy and Daddy’s little self-actualizing device. That’s why so many parents live their lives vicariously through their kids, obsessing over their soccer games and morphing into “helicopter parents” who hover over their children even when they leave for college. This also means that if a child is an inconvenience, he or she can be disposed of in a socially acceptable way. That’s why abortion is so common, especially in the case of mentally or physically handicapped infants. We hold the exact same attitudes that Jesus hated. We define people—even ourselves—by our usefulness.

You and I don’t want to be useless. We don’t want to be unpopular. We don’t want to be lowly. We want to be productive members of society. But Jesus is calling you to recognize your uselessness. You are weak; you are small; you are powerless. Embrace your true lowliness, and you will find yourself embraced by Jesus.

Jesus has come to be lowly, so you must beware of pride (Mark 9:42–50)

A woman cowers on the cliffs overlooking a deep mountain lake. An angry crowd has gathered to witness her terrifying death. Situated on the edge of the cliff, a massive disk-shaped stone stands on its side, a hole cut in the center. The executioners drag the trembling woman to the stone, force her head through the hole, and bind her in place with a rope. And then, with a single mighty push, they tip the stone over the edge. She tumbles end over end—sees sky, water, sky, water, sky—and then water.

In a dimly lit hut on the edge of a nearby village, a man drips with sweat as he studies a meat cleaver resting on a rough table. He sends his left hand toward the knife, forcing his fingers to close over the handle. Through a sheer force of will, he holds his right wrist to the table. The cleaver shakes in his hand; the man bites his lip; and a scream comes as it hacks through his wrist. Blood pools on the floor. And the man is not finished. Next will come his right foot, and then—he stares dully at the tiny sharp knife across the table—his right eye.

Sixty miles away, a garbage dump smolders outside of a city, the refuse slowly burning away. A naked man lies on his side, his eyes half open, his neck broken. His consciousness returns. How long has he been here? He sees well enough to know that his lower body is rotting away. And then he feels it. A small patch of skin on his hip swells, then splits, a handful of maggots emerging from the festering wound. He would scream in horror if his voice could be raised beyond a croak. A rogue tongue of flame licks across his arm, singing the hair and peeling the skin. He can’t move; his death will be long and slow and hideous.

These images are vivid and cruel, and I didn’t make them up.

Jesus did.

Last week, we read how Jesus had predicted his coming suffering, death, and resurrection. His disciples thought that he would be a conquering political Messiah, Glenn Beck on steroids, who would restore his people to their Jewish heritage and drive out the corrupting rule of the Romans. That the Messiah would suffer and die didn’t fit into their paradigm of how the world works. It wasn’t a part of their “glory story.” So Jesus scolded them for trying to look the greatest and for excluding other followers of his who weren’t a part of their little clique. He modeled a concern for useless people and valued the contributions of those who weren’t a part of the Twelve.

Now, Jesus issues a series of warnings relating to this elitist attitude. We’ve seen several times in Mark’s gospel that often, people who think they are “insiders”—faithful disciples of Jesus—are in fact “outsiders.” Jesus brings this topic up again and counsels those who think they’re on the insider track to God’s kingdom.

His first warning is the story of the execution—the stone and the lake. It would be better to undergo this awful fate than to cause “one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble,” Jesus says. The punishment for such a person will be extreme and horrifying. Similarly, he lays out a series of three parallel proverbs. He tells his disciples to cut off their hands, feet, and eyes rather than permit anything to cause them to stumble. “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God” crippled or blind than “to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’” He quotes the final verse of the book of Isaiah, where God subjects those who rebel against him to eternal torment. Jesus is not afraid to preach hellfire and brimstone—not even against his own disciples.

The point is clear. Jesus’ disciples must do whatever it takes to cut off and tear out the proud, elitist attitudes festering in their hearts. If they do not, it will lead to their own downfall and possibly the downfall of other “little ones.” And God will respond appropriately with righteous, unquenchable fury.

As he dwells on the imagery of the fires of hell, Jesus utters a cryptic statement: “For everyone will be salted with fire.” He’s probably thinking of the sacrifices that the people of Israel were commanded to make to God, sacrifices that were seasoned with salt (Leviticus 2:13). Now, he says, each of his disciples must be “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1). But if someone who claims to be his disciple becomes corrupted with pride, his “salt” will have “lost its saltiness” and be useless as seasoning. The sacrifice will be ruined. Such a person cannot honor God.

So Jesus tells his disciples, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Their Lord will soon face suffering; they should not imagine that they are any better than he. They must do what the Holy Spirit commands through the apostle Paul: “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited” (Romans 12:16). There can be no rivalry, no one-upping, no boasting, no cliques in God’s kingdom. So beware of pride, a nasty and despicable sin. If you treat the lowly as garbage, you’ll quite literally be thrown out with the trash.

Jesus was lowly in his suffering, and in his suffering he served the lowly. If you are united with him, you too are a servant of the lowly and a “little one” yourself. Be glad that this is where true greatness is found.

Jesus has come to be lowly, so you must welcome the lowly (Mark 9:30–41)

I’d like to think that in Western culture, we respect and value the lowly and helpless, unlike many past and present cultures. It’s certainly the case that we’ve made progress; for example, slavery was made illegal in the 19th century, and there is an appreciation for the plight of the poor and marginalized across the world. Yet our values still don’t line up with Jesus’ values—not even in the church. Let’s consider this passage and the Jesus whom it reveals.

In chapter 8, it was finally revealed to the disciples that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, the King sent from God to deliver his people. In the following chapters, Jesus tells his disciples three times that he has come to suffer, die, and be raised to life again. Each time he tells them, they respond by failing to understand. This is the second time Jesus warns them that he has come to suffer, and Mark records that “they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.” In their worldview, glory and victory are valuable, not by a lowly and suffering “Messiah.” What Jesus is saying might as well be gibberish; it doesn’t fit into their paradigm of the world God has made. What they do recognize is that whatever Jesus means, it doesn’t sound good. So they’re afraid to ask him what he’s talking about; they’d rather stay in the dark on this one.

Their ignorance of Jesus’ mission becomes clear once they arrive in Capernaum. After entering the house where they’re staying, Jesus asks them, “What were you discussing on the way?” Like a troop of guilty children, they keep silent, “for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.” Who knows exactly what that conversation looked like! Perhaps Peter was showing off his charisma, or James wanted the other disciples to see that he was the most intelligent, or Nathaniel wanted to prove that he was the strongest. I suppose it’s encouraging that they feel ashamed. They’re beginning to recognize that Jesus isn’t too impressed when people start bragging on themselves.

Jesus sits them down for a teaching moment. He tells them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” His ethical system is a paradox, upside-down from everything they’ve been taught to believe. He proves his point by calling in a little child. In that culture, children weren’t valued until they became old enough to work. Until then, they were simply mouths to feed, a strain on the household budget. But Jesus picks up and holds the worthless little runt closely to himself. He tells them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

Jesus identifies himself in a special way with the lowly, with the useless and worthless people around you and me. He says that true greatness is not found in associating with popular or charming or productive people; it’s found in serving the worthless people.

This isn’t just contrary to the mindset of the ancient world. It’s contrary to our mindset as well. In Western culture, we don’t value the unborn; they’re an inconvenience, particularly if they’re disabled. They’re prime targets for abortion. We view immigrants from Mexico as illegal scoundrels here to steal our jobs. We think of children as either a hindrance to our happiness or a tool to make us happy; we don’t value them for their own sake. We love the idea of sending money to Bono so he can help starving kids in Africa, but we skirt around the poor and homeless in our own neighborhoods. We avoid interacting with people who are stupid, unattractive, poorly dressed, or socially awkward. We believe that the key to greatness is to put such people out of mind; if we associate with them, others won’t think we’re great any more!

Jesus does a wonderful thing here. Because he was lowly, despised, and rejected, he identifies with the lowly in this world. What greater role could you and I play than to welcome him—and therefore welcome the God who sent him? Because Jesus came to suffer, he rerouted the path to greatness, ensuring that you need to serve the lowly to become great.

One of Jesus’ disciples, John, unintentionally provides another example of wrong thinking about greatness. He tells Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Like many fundamentalist Christians, John loves the idea of separation—he has convinced himself that the only valid followers of Christ are the people in his elite clique. He looks down on this “lowly” exorcist who is not part of Jesus’ “inner circle.” But Jesus contradicts him, saying, “Do not stop him.” He gives three reasons why you and I shouldn’t stop another genuine follower of Christ just because he or she is from a different tradition. First, such a person will represent Christ favorably. We need as many people as possible to speak well of Jesus! Second, such a person is on the same team as you. As Jesus says, “The one who is not against us is for us.” Third, God approves of their genuine servanthood. They won’t go unrewarded. So if God approves, what right do you and I have to reject them? There is no room for cliques in the body of Christ. We should not enjoy separating from other believers; we should only do it (reluctantly) in cases where Christ and his gospel are under attack.

Because Jesus came as a suffering Messiah rather than a triumphalistic Messiah, his mission pierces the heart of our hubris. “He was despised and rejected by men” (Isaiah 53:3), and would we expect better for ourselves? Would we join the world in despising and rejecting the lowly? Will we despise and reject other believers just because they’re not in our cliques?