Tuesday, May 3, 2016

WITNESSES

Pixabay, Public Domain
Mark 1:1-15.

1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”— 3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” 4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” 12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. 14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Mark’s purpose for his gospel is stated right from the beginning: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). So all that follows will explain who the book is about—JESUS CHRIST, who this person is—THE SON OF GOD, and why knowing about him is good news.

Mark’s statement that Jesus Christ is the Son of God grabs us immediately. There are all kinds of opinions as to who Jesus was. For some serious hard-core doubters, He was a figment of imagination. For some He was a good teacher. For some He was A son of God just like all the rest of us are children of God. Some consider Him an example of a rebel against the establishment—sort of an ancient Ché.

At His trial, His own declaration that He was the only Son of the Most High ensured Him of a one way ticket to the cross. Mark 14:61-64 records this: “But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer. Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?’ ‘I am,’ said Jesus. ‘And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ The high priest tore his clothes. ‘Why do we need any more witnesses?’ he asked. ‘You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?’ They all condemned him as worthy of death.

But there were others who believed that Jesus was who Mark claims Him to be: “The Son of God.” And we meet two of them in the first chapter of Mark.

The first testimony as to who Jesus was came from a man by the name of John. John was called The Baptist because he came preaching that people needed to repent from their sins and that this commitment to God was demonstrated through baptism. But John had another role. He was not only a preacher and baptizer, he had also come to prepare the way for the Messiah, to announce the coming of the One who would come to provide the way of salvation for all who would believe. He was the fulfillment of the prophecy that Mark quotes from the book of Isaiah: “It is written in Isaiah the prophet: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way’— ‘a voice of one calling in the desert, Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. And so John came…

John was very clear that he was only the messenger, the advance man, the forerunner, the herald, the guy who blows the trumpet and announces the arrival of the king. On one occasion, when John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him, he said: “Look, the Lamb of God. who takes away the sin of the world!’” (John 1:29, 30).

But the first time John met Jesus, there was Someone else who gave testimony as to who Jesus was. John was preaching and baptizing at the Jordan River when Jesus appeared. Jesus got in the line with all the others, and though He had no sin to repent of and John objected, Jesus demonstrated His commitment to His Father in the same way that all the others were doing it—by being baptized. And, as Mark records it, as He was coming out of the water, God, the Father, spoke. “And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’” (Mark 1:11).

The first ten chapters of the book of Mark describe Jesus in His role as servant. And in these first few verses of Mark, we see Him already assuming that role. He comes to John and submits to a baptism that he really doesn’t need to submit to. He isn’t a sinner. He has nothing to confess. He’s the Son of God. Why should He act like the common herd? But to validate John’s ministry and message and to own it publicly as His Father’s message, and His message as well, He submits to John’s baptism. The Lord’s actions become an example to us of the process: “believe and be baptized.”

This took place at the beginning of Jesus public ministry. But near the end of that ministry, there were still those who acclaimed Him, who testified to who He was. Mark 11:1-11 tells us about this well-known incident that we celebrate today at the beginning of Passion week:

1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’” 4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7 When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9 Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” 10 “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.

In Matthew’s gospel, the writer says this about the incident: “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me…This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: ‘Say to the Daughter of Zion, See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey’” (Matthew 21:2, 5). Matthew quotes Zechariah 9:9. Mark and Luke don’t mention the donkey because Jesus rode the colt.

I always wondered why the colt? Why didn’t Jesus ride in on the donkey? The mother would have been bigger and better able to handle the weight. Why did the prophet specify the colt and why did Jesus choose the colt over its mother?

It appears that when the Hebrews wanted to do do something special connected to their homage toward God, (Numbers 19:2, Deuteronomy 21:3), or wanted to handle things that were sacred as in 1 Samuel 6:7 they chose an animal that had never been used before for any other purpose. Its first use would be  for a holy purpose. So when Jesus comes riding on this colt, the statement is made that He is sacred, the special sacrifice. Even the colt was a witness!

The disciples were not instructed to ask for the colt. They were simply to untie him and bring him. And when they were asked what they were doing they were simply to say that “The Lord needs it and will send it back shortly.” Those are actions and words of authority, the kind of thing a King would do. A King doesn’t need to ask permission, and his right as King demands obedience. Though Jesus was a servant to all, these are the actions of a King.

Why now? During His earlier ministry, at the height of His popularity, people wanted to make Him their King, but He slipped away, in fact, often kept away from the towns and cities and made people come to Him if they were interested about what He said.

MacLaren writes: “He was under no illusion as to what would follow…deliberately, and with a clear understanding of what He was doing, He took a step which forced them to show their hand. For after such a public avowal of who He was, and such public hosannas surging round His meek feet as He rode into the city, there were but two courses open for the official class: either to acknowledge Him, or to murder Him. Therefore He reversed His usual action, and deliberately posed, by His own act, as claiming to be the Messiah long prophesied and long expected.”

The crowd declared who He was. “Hosanna” means “O save” and they knew enough of the prophecies themselves to suppose that He had come to do that, though they were likely thinking about salvation from Roman oppression more than salvation from their sins. By His actions, He declared again who He was.

 John 12 tells about an episode after the entry into Jerusalem about which Mark doesn’t comment. The city was abuzz with people coming from far and wide to celebrate the Passover. John says that among all these people were some Greeks who had heard about Jesus’ entrance into the city, and wanted to meet Him. So they found one of the disciples who found another of the disciples who took the Greeks to Jesus. As He spoke to them, He announced His death again using the picture of a kernel of wheat falling into the ground. Unless the kernel of wheat died it would not produce. As Jesus spoke, there was another witness to who He was who spoke. John12:28 records Jesus speaking: “‘Father, glorify your name!’  Then a voice came from heaven. ‘I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.’ The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. Jesus said, ‘This voice was for your benefit, not mine…I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.’”

Once more a witness speaks up, testifying to who this Man is. And since He is Who they say He is, and Who He claims to be, then listening to Him, and responding to what He says, is a very good idea.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Second Chances

Pixaby, Public Domain
Mark is the second gospel and the shortest and simplest of the gospels. The four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are all we know about those thirty-three years that Jesus, the Man, walked the earth. We don’t know everything He did and said, just those things that He considered necessary for us to know. Like Deuteronomy (29:29) tells us: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” First of all we are going to take a closer look at the author and a general look at the book itself. Mark is a particularly interesting character if only for the simple reason that he came very close to being written out of the “script” that is the Gospel record. Mark began as pretty much of a failure. He almost threw away every opportunity to be who God intended him to be.

So who, exactly is this Mark?

According to Acts 12:12, Mark’s mother Mary had a large house that was used as a meeting place for believers in Jerusalem. In the early days, churches were house churches. The first church buildings didn’t appear until several hundred years after the death of Christ, though tradition says that the apostle Thomas was responsible for a building in India as early as 50 years after the resurrection. When we consider that there were thousands of believers after Pentecost we can hardly imagine how many house churches were functioning in the early years described in Acts.

The apostle Peter apparently went to this house often because we are told that a servant girl recognized his voice when he appeared at the gate of the house after God sent an angel to released him from prison (Acts 12:13-16). Barnabas was Mark’s cousin (Colossians 4:10), but Peter also had a huge influence on his life. In 1 Peter 5:13 Peter refers to Mark as his “son” and it appears that Peter was the apostolic authority behind Mark’s gospel and served as Mark’s primary source of information. In Mark 14, in the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus was betrayed and taken away, there is a reference to young man who fled the scene along with the other disciples. It is believed by some that this young man was Mark.

But the most important moment in Mark’s spiritual journey came in his relationship with Barnabas, his cousin, and with Paul, who partnered with Barnabas in the first missionary journey. Here’s the story from Acts 12 and 13:

When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark. In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (12:25-13:3).

And that’s how the first missionaries began their first journey. They had barely gotten started when for some reason, Mark decided that the missionary life wasn’t for him. Acts 13:13 says: “From Paphos, Paul [Saul] and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John [Mark] left them to return to Jerusalem.” Later, after Paul and Barnabas had returned to Jerusalem to report what had happened on their first trip, and were ready to start on the next one, Barnabas wanted to take Mark with them again. Here’s how the Scriptures describe their conversation:

Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.’ Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. [Believers can disagree and part company over something other than a doctrinal issue!—my note.] Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (15:36-41).

Paul is known for his brusque manner. He had no time and little patience for anyone who couldn’t keep up to him. Barnabas, on the other hand, was a mellower sort of person. His name means “son of consolation.” He was the kind of person you like to have with you beside a deathbed or when dealing with someone like Mark. Paul saw a failure; Barnabas saw a young man who needed a second chance.

We don’t know anything about what happened to Barnabas and Mark during their journey together—the focus falls on Paul. But that’s not such a bad thing. When you are healing and growing, you don’t need the public spotlight. You aren’t ready for it and it doesn’t serve any purpose in that process of restoration.

What we do know is that Paul and Mark would team up once again about twelve years later. Paul was then in prison in Rome. He wrote a lot of letters while he was in prison and several times refers to Mark as being with him: “My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, was does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him)” (Colossians 4:10) and “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner for Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.” (Philemon 24).

At the end of his life, Paul writes to Timothy and refers to Mark this way: “Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke us with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (2 Timothy 4:9-11).

Mark had made a mess of things. Why or how doesn't really matter. What does matter is that someone, Barnabas, took the time to help get him back on track, with the result that he became useful in the ministry and was chosen by the Holy Spirit to record what we have in the gospel that bears his name.

It is supposed that Mark wrote his record while accompanying Paul in Rome. Apparently he was writing to a Gentile, or non-Jewish audience, because he leaves out things that wouldn’t be of interest to them, like the list of all Christ’s ancestors that we find in Matthew and Luke's Gospel. He leaves out prophecies, references to the Law and some of the Jewish customs mentioned in the other gospels.

His purpose for the gospel is stated right from the beginning: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). So all that follows will explain who the book is about—JESUS CHRIST, who this person is—THE SON OF GOD, and why knowing about him is good news. The first ten chapters show the reader Jesus Christ, the servant. The last six chapters show the reader Jesus Christ, the Saviour.

But let’s return for a moment to Mark, the failure. Who can’t identify with him? His story strikes a cord in all of us, because all of us have needed, a one time or another, a second chance. I particularly identify with Mark’s situation on that first missionary journey. I was three months into my first term of service in Colombia and came within a hair’s-breath of throwing it all away—totally my fault—and a story too long to tell here. After three months in Colombia, I was forced to return home because I didn’t have a work permit. The Colombian government had decided not to grant any more permits to missionaries until they could get their records straight as to who was where doing what. So I had come into the country on a three-month tourist visa. I went back to Canada pretty much convinced that I was going to resign and walk away from something that I had dreamed of, and prepared for, since I was 9 years old.

I told the Director of the mission my decision and he, the wise man that he was, simply said: “I’ll be back here in three days and we’ll talk about this again.”

I went home, miserable, just as miserable as I had been since I returning to Canada. But God, like Barnabas, wasn’t ready to let me go yet. During those few days He showed me the things in me that were the cause of the problem, and granted me the grace to confess to Him my foolishness and my own sin. As soon as I did that, the misery went away. When our Director returned three days later, her knew as soon as he saw my face coming through the door that something had happened to change my attitude. And within days of this change, I got word that my visa had been approved and I had a legal work permit which would allow me to go back to Colombia.

When I think of how close I came to throwing away all those years of ministry to which God had called me, I can’t help but be thankful that God is the God of second chances, and third ones, and four ones… When I read Mark’s story, I can relate and be thankful on his behalf that Barnabas, and eventually Paul, as well as God, gave him another chance.—we’d be missing the Gospel of Mark otherwise!

Psalm 141 expresses what can be our cry to the God of second-chances: “I cry aloud to the Lord; I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy. I pour out my complaint before him; before him I tell my trouble. When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you who know my way. In the path where I walk men have hidden a snare for me. Look to my right and see; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for me. I cry to you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.’ Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need; rescue me from those who pursue me, for they are too strong for me. Set me free from my prison that I may praise your name. Then the righteous will gather about me because of your goodness to me.


Need a second chance? Go to God. Isaiah 55:6, 7 tells it all: "Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon."