Jesus has come to protect his disciples, so have confidence in him alone (Mark 13:14–23)

Last week, we read that Jesus doesn’t want us to be Chicken Littles who panic whenever some cataclysm happens, convinced that the world is coming to an end—that “the sky is falling!”

But what if the sky actually is falling?

After Jesus announces that the Jewish temple will be destroyed (13:1–2), his disciples have asked him, “When will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” (13:4). In addition the destruction of the temple, they seem to want to know when he will set up his kingdom on earth. Because these two events are interrelated but separated in time, Jesus’ answer will include elements from both. But first of all, he warns them not to be easily alarmed by cataclysms or by false announcements of his coming; in fact, they should expect persecution since his coming will be delayed (13:5–13).

However, the time will come when the temple will be destroyed, and it won’t be pleasant. We know from history that in 37 years, a Roman army will overrun Judea in response to a rebellion. Jerusalem will be destroyed, and the temple will be razed to the ground, just as Jesus is prophesying. The Jews will be massacred. Jesus wants to protect his vulnerable disciples from this act of judgment, so he tells them to watch for “the abomination of desolation standing where it ought not to be.” When they see this, they are to drop everything and run! The suffering will be so terrible that “if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved.” Everyone in Judea would be killed.

We know that the Christians in Jerusalem obeyed Jesus’ warning and evacuated to the town of Pella to the north and across the Jordan River. By following Jesus’ warning, they escaped with their lives.

“But wait!” you ask. “What is this ‘abomination of desolation’ that they were supposed to look out for?” Well, we know that Jesus was quoting from the book of Daniel, in which it was prophesied that a vicious tyrant would desecrate the temple with some sort of “abomination” (Daniel 8:9–14; 9:26–27; 11:31; 12:11). This prophecy was initially fulfilled when Antiochus IV Epiphanes outlawed the worship of the Lord and set up swine sacrifices in the temple about 200 years before Jesus’ words. Apparently history is about to repeat itself, and another “abomination of desolation” is yet to come before the temple is destroyed.

And if you’re wondering whether I know what this “abomination” turned out to be, the answer is no. There are plenty of theories out there, but no one knows for sure. Ultimately, it’s not terribly important what it was exactly. What’s important is that Jesus is warning his disciples to protect them from death.

Not only is he protecting them from death with these warnings, but he’s also protecting them from deception. He tells them, “If anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. False christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect.” In times of great suffering, people will latch on to any charismatic figure who offers them hope, especially one who can (supposedly?) perform miracles. “Be on guard,” Jesus says. “I have told you all things beforehand.” This prophecy is meant to protect his disciples so that they can survive the dangerous times that are coming.

Here’s what this passage tells us about Jesus: he wants to protect those who are his own. Twice he calls them the elect—people who have been chosen by God. He won’t abandon the people whom God has chosen to be called by his name. He will preserve them even when the world around them comes apart at the seams. They can say with confidence, “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress!” (Psalm 46:11).

So how should this affect our thinking and our behavior? First, we must be confident no matter how severe the danger surrounding us. Our confidence does not come because we have enough influence or financial security or government protection to avoid suffering. As though these things will protect us when “the earth gives way…the nations rage, the kingdoms totter” (Psalm 46:2, 6)! Neither can we be confident in our own intelligence, thinking that false teaching won’t deceive us. No, it is God who is “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear” (Psalm 46:1–2).

Second, watch out! It’s dangerous to have too much confidence in the institutions of man, whether it’s the Jerusalem temple or the national government or the stability of your employer. And as we just observed, it’s dangerous to have confidence in your own ability to discern false teaching. So watch carefully to make sure that you trust only in your Lord, Jesus Christ, to save you when the world falls apart around you.

Jesus has authority to rescue captives (Mark 7:31–37)

Everyone likes a good prison break. But what if the prison is your own body?

Jesus has been traveling through Gentile territory, and he’s become just as popular here as he has among his fellow Jews. Remember how the demon-possessed man of Mark 5 had been proclaiming that Jesus had freed him from the influence of unclean spirits? Apparently, he was a successful herald of Jesus’ return to the Decapolis, because now a crowd of people want to listen to him and ask for his help.

Mark focuses on one particular healing event during this time. A with a serious condition is brought to Jesus. This man is deaf and also has a speech impediment. Of course, these two problems tend to go together; if you’re deaf, it’s hard to know how to properly control your voice. As is often the case, the man’s friends are desperate when they come to Jesus, begging him for help. That’s just the sort of attitude that Jesus likes, so he pulls the man aside from the crowd.

It’s interesting that Jesus shows so much private attention to this man. No doubt most people would feel awkward and try to avoid him, but Jesus takes him aside and gets a little bit invasive. He pokes his fingers into the man’s ears, spits on him, touches his tongue. It’s sort of a personalized healing ritual for the man. Now, Jesus could have healed him any way he wanted, but Mark seems to be emphasizing the degree of personal attention Jesus is showing him.

Then Jesus looks up to heaven and sighs deeply. He sympathizes with this man. He feels in his heart the loneliness and suffering of a man isolated from communicating with his friends and family. This is a man who has been imprisoned in his own malfunctioning body. Jesus brings this tragic situation before God the Father, then turns to the man and utters one word: “ephphatha.” This word remained vivid in the minds of his disciples years later, when Mark heard it from them. Mark explains to his readers that it means “be opened.” It’s the first word this man has heard, perhaps for years.

Instantly, like the doors of a dungeon swinging open at Jesus’ words, the man’s ears allow waves of sound to wash over him. His tongue is released from the chains that bound it, and he is able to speak plainly. From now on, the real trouble is going to be to get him to shut up!

Jesus orders the man and his friends to tell no one what has happened. Of course, they don’t listen. In fact, Mark writes, “The more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.” Jesus wants his name to be known, but he doesn’t want to be known merely as a miracle worker. Can you blame these people, though? This is great news! Even the Gentiles are saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

These words would have reminded Mark’s readers of Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the coming Messiah:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
(Isaiah 35:5–6)

It’s clear that Jesus has fulfilled the promise that was given through Isaiah. Another piece has been added to the puzzle of who Jesus is. He is a man whose authority and power are so great that he can release people who have been imprisoned in their own malfunctioning bodies. He can unstop deaf ears and make mute tongues sing for joy.

Now, here’s what Isaiah says our response to Jesus should be:

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who have an anxious heart,
“Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you.”
(Isaiah 35:3–4)

You and I are captives—prisoners of Satan, prisoners of sin, prisoners of weak and decaying bodies. If we are careful and rational thinkers, we won’t have much faith in our own abilities and our own wisdom. We can’t rescue ourselves.

If we believe this, you and I will become desperate. If that’s you, you’re just the kind of person Jesus likes to help. Come to him; he will pull you aside from the crowd and respond to you personally. He’ll invade your life and make you uncomfortable. But he will give you the freedom and joy you never thought possible.

So if you are weak and worried—“Be strong; fear not!” Jesus will come and save you. Put your faith in the One who has authority to rescue captives like you.

Jesus wants worthless people (Mark 7:24–30)

To be healed, first you must be sick. To be set free, first you must be a slave. To be rescued, first you must be in peril. To be saved, first you must be a sinner. To be resurrected, first you must be dead.

And to be a child of God, first you must be a dog.

For the second time in Mark’s account, Jesus travels outside of Jewish territory into a Gentile region. He’s apparently taking a sort of “vacation” with his disciples, trying to get away from the chaos and crowds so he can devote his time to his immediate followers. However, as a result of his spectacular ministry, his reputation precedes him. He can’t stay hidden even in the region of Tyre and Sidon, two cities to the north of Galilee. Before long, he is approached by a woman whose daughter is possessed by an unclean spirit. She falls down at his feet and begs him to cast the demon out of her daughter.

Now, this story comes right on the heels of Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees, a group of nationalistic Jewish religious leaders. They are very concerned about the national identity of Israel, and they devote themselves to staying ceremonially clean, even inventing their own laws to stay safe. If they were in Jesus’ shoes, they would shrink back from this helpless wretch: she is an unclean Gentile, a woman, and her daughter is possessed by an unclean spirit. She is not a part of God’s chosen people, the people of Israel. She has no claim to the kindness of God. That’s what a “good Jew” would have thought about this woman.

So Jesus responds to her request with a proverb. He says to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Yes, he is referring to the Jews as God’s “children” and to the Gentiles as mere “dogs.” If your concept of Jesus is limited to Flannelgraph Jesus from Sunday School or Hippie Jesus from American culture, this statement seems appalling. But a Jew of the time wouldn’t have blinked an eye. That’s how they thought about their pagan Gentile neighbors. Jesus is asking the woman, “My priority is to minister to the people of Israel. You’re not a part of God’s chosen nation; why should I help you?” He’s challenging her the way a Pharisee would; he’s playing “devil’s advocate.”

It becomes clear right away that this woman understands the meaning of grace. The Pharisees thought of themselves as earning God’s favor through their merits, but she admits that she has no merits to speak of. “Yes, Lord,” she says, “yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

There are a lot of ways she could have responded. If it were me, I might complain that I am a valuable person created in the image of God. I might plead my self-worth. I probably wouldn’t say out loud that I deserve Jesus’ help because I’m a good guy, but I would probably think it. This Gentile woman, though, doesn’t miss a beat. She embraces her status as a “dog.” She doesn’t think there is anything special about her that should convince Jesus to help her. Instead, she finds an opening in Jesus’ proverb and seizes it. He had said, “Let the children be fed first.” She admits that the power of God is “to the Jew first” (Romans 1:16). But she believes that Jesus’ power is more than enough, that it can overflow to her as well. Jesus had fed 5,000 men with five loaves of bread, and there had been twelve baskets of leftovers; she is convinced that there will be leftovers for her as well.

In other words, this woman does not plead her own merit. She pleads the unlimited power of Jesus. She pleads his compassion that overflows from his love for Israel and splashes down on wretched Gentiles like herself. She has nothing to offer him, but she believes that he has the authority, power, and compassion to rescue her daughter.

Jesus is delighted with her answer. She has wrestled with him and prevailed. “For this statement you may go your way,” he tells her. “The demon has left your daughter.” Sure enough, when she gets home, her daughter is lying asleep in bed, and the demon is gone.

The contrast is sharp between this woman and the Jewish religious leaders. They are clean; she is unclean. They are “good people”; she is not. They are in a position of privilege; she has no rights to claim. She is a loser, and she knows it. That’s what makes her an insider and the religious leaders outsiders. She doesn’t plead her own goodness. She pleads only the goodness of Jesus.

If you and I want to see the power of Jesus at work, in us and around us, we must abandon our merits and our rights. We are morally bankrupt, powerless, helpless. We don’t deserve to be rescued by God. All we can plead is the compassion of Jesus and his superabundant power to save. So don’t try to be accepted by God on the basis of your performance. Come to him, filthy and broken, and plead Jesus Christ, because Jesus wants worthless people.

Nothing in my hand I bring
Simply to the cross I cling
Naked, come to thee for dress
Helpless, look to thee for grace
Foul, I to the fountain fly
Wash me, Savior, or I die!
—Augustus Toplady