Jesus has come to be unrecognized, yet he is a true witness (Mark 14:53–72)

Words are cheap. Emotions are cheap. There’s a difference between youthful infatuation and true, loyal love. And there’s a difference between saying you’ll be faithful to Jesus and then truly acknowledging him when the people around you begin to get hostile.

Jesus has been arrested and is being led off to a preliminary hearing at the home of the Jewish high priest. Following him “at a distance” is Peter, the disciple who claimed that he would never deny Jesus. We’ll get back to Peter in a moment.

Mark records that “the chief priests and the whole Council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death.” In most trials, the charges are already in place, and the question is whether or not the defendant is guilty, and if so, what his sentence should be. In this hearing, it has already been decided that the defendant is guilty and the sentence is death. Now, his judges simply need to find a charge. They need an excuse to get rid of Jesus, who is a threat to their authority.

False witnesses are paraded before the Council, each one accusing Jesus of wrongdoing. But they are contradicting one another. Things are not going well for this kangaroo court.

The high priest takes control of the situation. He confronts Jesus, asking, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” Jesus says nothing, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 53:7. The charges are absurd and don’t deserve a response. Jesus is totally innocent of wrongdoing.

Finally, the high priest demands, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus has never said so publicly, but his actions and his parables have strongly implied it. Finally, his enemies challenge him to reveal how he sees himself. Will Jesus back down in order to save his own life?

“I am,” he replies, “and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

Not only does Jesus agree that he is the Messiah, God’s anointed king, but that he is the Son of God. He also claims to be the Son of Man, a divine figure whom God grants authority over the whole earth (Daniel 7:13–14). He is both God and man, deserving all power and authority as the Lord over all creation.

“You have heard his blasphemy!” the high priest shouts as he tears his garments in rage. The Council has been standing in judgment over this maverick Galilean preacher, and now he claims to have authority over them! And he even sets himself up as equal to God!

He deserves to die, they decide. The members of the council spit on him; they blindfold him and slap him, mocking him by demanding that he prophesy to them. They release him to the guards, who beat him with closed fists.

As Jesus is being abused and condemned to death, Peter is also facing a deadly threat: the teasing of a servant girl. The poor man is just trying to keep warm by a fire while waiting for news of Jesus, but this girl recognizes him as a Galilean and pipes up, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” Peter denies it and abandons the fire for the safety of the darkened gateway, while a rooster crows ominously. The girl finds him and identifies him again, and others agree, “This man is one of them.” Peter denies it again, but they persist in identifying him with the criminal, Jesus. Finally, he begins to lob curses, and he swears, “I do not know this man of whom you speak!”

The rooster crows a second time, and at once Peter remembers what Jesus told him: “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” Peter was brimming with self-confidence at the time, and he refused to believe it. Now, his self-esteem has been stripped away, and he sees himself for what he really is. He is a failure, a coward and a traitor; he has abandoned his Lord to avoid disgracing himself. He is ashamed of Jesus and his words (Mark 8:38).

Peter breaks down and weeps. For the first time in Mark’s gospel, he is broken. There is no more hiding from his sin.

We leave Mark’s account at a dark and miserable place, and the story is only going to get uglier. But there is hope here. We know that Peter has failed to confess Jesus as his Lord. But Jesus has not failed. He has insisted on his Lordship even when faced with death. He succeeds where Peter fails.

That’s where our hope comes from. If you see yourself as a stalwart defender of the Christian faith and an all-around great person, you’re going to be broken. God loves you; he will not let your self-confidence harden you into a creature fit for hell. He will break you down first. And then you will see that Jesus is your only hope. You cannot remain faithful to him; you will fail to acknowledge him as your Lord in your actions and words. That’s why Jesus did it all for you that night. And this act of courage and faithfulness belongs to you now; it’s what God sees when he looks at you. Jesus stood in your place before his bloodthirsty enemies, and when asked if he was their Lord, he declared, “I am!” Then he was “despised and rejected by men” (Isaiah 53:3) so that you would never be despised and rejected by God.

You are not good. You are not strong. But Jesus was. And that’s all that matters.

Why I need Easter

I’m not the kind of guy who gets excited about celebrating holidays or setting special days aside.

But the truth is that I need Easter.

For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.

I was born with a mind already shaped to believe that my behavior is what will make me acceptable to God. It’s not hard to think this way. The culture around me promotes it. Do all the right things and be a decent person, and God will be happy with you.

But how much is enough? God’s law is too high a standard. How can I love him with all my heart and love my neighbor as myself? That would take a zealot—one of those Christians who are championed in little paperback biographies, spiritual giants whose stories I have no hope of matching.

I can’t become one of these radical Christians. I don’t know how. I haven’t traveled overseas and adopted dozens of orphans or preached the gospel to villages or spent three hours a day in prayer or given away all that I own. I don’t have the will to force myself into anything more than a marginal level of devotion today.

I feel deadened by failure. The law has killed me. And so I die to the law. There is no hope here, only inadequacy and guilt. I am repenting not only of my sin, but also of my righteousness.

This is exactly the way God planned it. This is how he cuts me off from my self-sufficiency and teaches me to live in his strength.

I have been crucified with Christ.

It’s not enough to be given Christ as an example. So many popular teachers will say that this is all he came to be. Anyone who says that is a slave merchant, trying to sell me into bondage to the law again—as though I could match Jesus!

No, I am not called to match Jesus. I have been joined to him. When God looked at him 2,000 years ago, he saw me. He saw my endless sin and my pathetic self-righteousness. And he dashed the fury of his wrath against Jesus until not a drop was left over for me to drink. I have been crucified, but not I—Christ in my place.

On that cross, Jesus obeyed his Father and became obedient even to death. There was never a better man, because he is the Son of Man, the man who is God. On the cross he fulfilled all righteousness: love for God and love for man. And because I am joined to Christ, I was there too. I have been crucified with Christ. When God looks at me, he sees the righteousness of Jesus. I look like him.

It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

Most people would say that I am fairly decent and polite. I know better because I see the inside of the costume. It is frayed, torn, and filthy with sin.

The good news is that I don’t need it any more. I don’t need to force myself to be one of these “radical Christians.” I don’t need to feel depressed because I can’t measure up. That’s the way a self-righteous person thinks. Jesus wants me to look at him, at his righteousness, and know that it is mine. It is mine because he is mine, because he is alive, because he is risen from the dead.

And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

I live because the Son of God lives. I am joined to him.

If he were still dead, I would still be dead. If he were still dead, I would have no one to trust. If he were still dead, I would have no proof that God loves me.

But he is alive.

It’s true that my mindset is that of a dead man. Even now, I feel the shame of knowing that I haven’t prayed enough, that I haven’t shown enough kindness to others, that I haven’t given enough of my money away, that I haven’t been courageous enough to tell others about Jesus Christ. I need to do more, more, more.

That’s how a dead man thinks. You can scarcely call it “life” to be crippled with doubts and fears like that.

The grim reality is that nothing is ever enough. I can never be radical enough. I don’t have what it takes. That’s why I live by faith in the Son of God. I trust him. I trust that he loves me. I trust that when he gave himself for me, it was enough to satisfy the Father’s need for holiness. I trust that he is not merely the Father but now my Father.

It’s so hard to think this way. So hard. It is not intuitive. It doesn’t make sense. I usually don’t feel that it’s true. That’s why I have to trust Jesus on this one.

You see, Jesus is alive. And that means that he hasn’t left me but is still joined to me. And that means that when God sees me, he will always see Jesus. And he really loves Jesus.

I haven’t been given a system of principles and laws to trust in. I’ve been given a person—Jesus Christ. And this person is alive and victorious and interceding on my behalf, at this very minute, before the throne of the Almighty God.

I need Jesus.

That is why I need Easter.

May the Holy Spirit open your eyes this Easter to see your need for Jesus Christ. May you know that when you believe in him, you are joined to him and never let go.

Scripture taken from Galatians 2:19–20.

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’ obedience is mine

The pattern of my life is not pleasing to God.
But Jesus pleased him to the fullest extent possible. (Mark 1:11)

I don’t make much of an effort to spend time alone with God. I don’t think praying with God is a good use of my time.
But Jesus got up early and left everything to be with God. He was convinced that God would lend his limitless power to those who pray. (1:35; 9:29; 11:22–24)

I want people to think highly of me. I want to get them to do the things I want so that I will feel happy and fulfilled.
But Jesus put other people first and saw himself as their servant. (9:33–37; 10:35–45)

I like to supplement God’s law with a few of my own.
But Jesus refused to accept any manmade law that interfered with God’s will. (7:1–13)

I’d rather keep my life back for myself instead of giving it to God.
But Jesus gave up his life, submitting to the will of God. (8:34–38)

I like using my time and money in intelligent and practical ways.
But Jesus prefers inefficient and awkward displays of devotion to him. (14:3–9)

I only like to do God’s will if it’s easy.
Jesus was willing to do God’s will even if it meant being abused and forsaken by everyone he knew and loved. (14:36)

I tend to get focused on the daily grind, on projects and goals and minor details.
But Jesus cared about people and wanted to save them. (1:17)

I prefer simple, rigid rules and laws.
But Jesus understood that God’s law is all about giving people what is good for them. (2:23–28; 3:1–6)

I don’t want to allow suffering people to complicate my life.
But Jesus acted out of pity for them even if it inconvenienced him. (1:40–45)

I like being around attractive, well-mannered people who have their lives together.
But Jesus would much rather be around dirty, messed-up sinners. (2:13–17)

I don’t think about other people’s needs; I’m obsessed with my own needs.
Jesus was concerned about other people’s needs for food and rest. (6:31; 8:2)

I don’t worry much about people who have no spiritual leader.
Jesus longed to fill the void for people who didn’t know he was the Good Shepherd they should follow. (6:34)

I focus on physical problems more than the real problem of sin in my life. I don’t think it’s a big deal.
But Jesus knew that sin was the most fundamental problem that people have. He was horrified at the danger which sin posed to people and the judgment they would face for it. (2:4; 9:42–50)

I tend to think of myself as a pretty decent person who sometimes does bad things.
Jesus knew that people are rotten deep down and that bad things come from bad hearts. (7:14–23)

I keep thinking I can get eternal life by being a well-mannered, well-meaning person.
But Jesus knew that only humble, childlike, desperate people will enter the kingdom of God. (Mark 10:13–31)

I want to exclude people who don’t belong to my church or theological tradition.
But Jesus knew that God’s kingdom includes people who aren’t just like me. (9:38–41)

I don’t like it when people challenge my ideas about who God is and how he acts.
But Jesus loved to turn people’s beliefs about God upside down. (12:35–37)

Sometimes I get into arguments with stubborn people who refuse to change their minds.
But Jesus knew when it wasn’t worth the fight. (8:11–13)

I shy away from demanding change from people who need to change.
But Jesus was bold in proclaiming repentance and the gospel. (1:15)

I’d rather back down when confronted by spiritual forces that hate me and people who don’t want me around.
Jesus beat up the spiritual forces and rescued a suffering man. (5:1–20)

I often don’t know how to respond when people challenge my beliefs about God.
But Jesus knew exactly how to challenge the mindset of his accusers. (11:27–12:34)

I’m easily impressed by religious people and powerful institutions made by men.
But Jesus couldn’t stand religious people and declared that the kingdoms of man would be torn to the ground. (12:38–13:37)

I sometimes worry that the church will eventually be smothered by the world.
But Jesus was confident that he is stronger than Satan. (3:23–27)

I don’t get upset when people treat casually the things God says are holy.
But Jesus became incensed when he saw the temple treated as a marketplace. (11:15–17)

I treat marriage casually, as simply another important relationship in life.
But Jesus insisted that marriage was God’s special creation. (10:1–12)

I’m not so sure that God will always be there to rescue me.
Jesus wasn’t bothered by little things like life-threatening storms. (4:35–41; 6:45–52)

I doubt that God has much power to heal people who are sick or raise the dead to life.
Jesus himself has the power to heal chronic illness and raise the dead. (5:21–43)

What wondrous love, what mysteries
In this appointment shine:
My breaches of the law are his,
And his obedience mine!
—John Newton

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