Seeing Jesus. Time to Clean Our Glasses?

Reading through the Gospel of Mark you may notice a reticence on the part of Jesus to fully reveal his identity. For example:

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Mark 8:27-30 (emphasis added)

Peter gets it right, Jesus is the Messiah! But the disciples are to keep that fact to themselves. We also see the reticence of Jesus to reveal his identity at his “transfiguration” on the mountain. There Jesus’ identity is made even more clear:

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. . . .7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. Mark 9:2-4;7,8

Jesus here is confirmed as being more than just the promised Messiah. He is also in some way superior to the law, as represented by Moses, and the prophets, as represented by Elijah. You can imagine the excitement of Peter, James, and John who I’m sure couldn’t wait to tell the others about what they had just seen! But then . . .

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. Mark 9:9-10 (emphasis added)

Why the secrecy? Why didn’t Jesus just tell everyone who he really was on the first day of his ministry? The reason is quite straightforward. Jesus kept his identity quiet because partial understanding can lead to misunderstanding. People had a partial understanding of what to expect from the coming Messiah. Such a partial understanding of the Messiah could quickly turn into misunderstandings about Jesus.

It may have escaped our notice, but is surprising nonetheless, that “Messiah” was not at the top of the list for the identity of Jesus in the mind of the public. Let us read again:

[Jesus] asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” Mark 8:27,28

While Peter gets it correct, “the Messiah” was not even on the list for people generally, never mind at the top. Why? Because in expecting the Messiah, the people were expecting something different than Jesus. They were expecting a focus on the Kingdom of Israel along with a message of doom for the Romans. Jesus was instead teaching about the Kingdom of God along with a message of repentance for Israel.

Even Peter, immediately following his confession of Jesus as the Messiah, displays this partial understanding:

Mark 8:31-33 (NRSV) 31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter is thinking on human things, like the Kingdom of Israel and taking back the land from the Romans. A suffering then dead Messiah is not going to help with that! If Peter is going to misunderstand Jesus’ role as Messiah, everyone else is too.  Jesus immediately tells the people to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow” (v.34) The Messiah was expected to tell them to “pick up the sword and follow”.  A cross meant death by Romans rather than death to Romans. What kind of Messiah would lead us toward our deaths?! Only following the resurrection of Jesus would it all start to make sense.

Since a partial understanding of the Messiah would lead to terrible misunderstandings about Jesus, he keeps quiet publicly about his identity until less than a week before his death.

So what does this have to do with us today? Most people you rub shoulders with know something about Jesus. However, it may be a partial understanding, which can lead to a misunderstanding. Let us consider a few examples:

Partial understanding: Jesus was a great teacher. True! Misunderstanding: We should only go to Jesus for wisdom. Full understanding: Jesus is also God the Son, the Saviour. We go to him not just for wisdom, but for salvation.

Partial understanding: Jesus was a prophet. True! Misunderstanding: Jesus was just one prophet among many.  Full understanding: Jesus is also God the Son, unique in his teaching, his miracles, his claims. He is the only one who could reconcile us to God, and the only one who did.

Partial understanding: Jesus was a man. True! Misunderstanding: Jesus was only a man. Full understanding: Jesus is fully man, but also fully God.

Partial understanding: Through Jesus we are saved from hell, from separation from God. True! Misunderstanding: Salvation from hell is all we need to think about, care about, or sing about. Full understanding: We are not just saved from the consequence of sin; separation from God, we are also saved from its power as we walk in the Spirit.

This last one is an insight from John Stonestreet and Brett Kunckle in their book “A Practical Guide to Culture”. Partial understanding: In Jesus we are “saved from . . . “. True! Misunderstanding: Now that we have been saved from something, there is nothing for us to do. Full understanding: We are also “saved for”. We are saved for for relationship with God, and for good works in our relationship with the world and everyone in it.

Do we allow a partial understanding of Jesus lead to misunderstanding? Do we see clearly who Jesus is? Perhaps it is time to clean our glasses.

(All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)

The full sermon can be heard here.


Powerful Men React to Jesus

Falling prey to a “research project”, my wife and I sat and listened to a lengthy sales pitch  for an air purifier. The punchline of the presentation was “if you want to live longer you will buy our product”. To that I asked the salesman if he would like to live even longer than what he suggested and began to talk about Jesus. We listened to his sales pitch for about three quarters of an hour. Within minutes of my mention of Jesus, he was out the door.

It is interesting to note how people respond, or more accurate sometimes, react, to Jesus. In our passage for this week, Mark 2:1-3:6, we have several different reactions to Jesus.

In verses 2-4 we see people crowding into a house to see Jesus. Some even dig through a roof in an effort to get their friend into his presence. In verses 6-7 the scribes respond by assuming that Jesus has committed blasphemy when he pronounces  forgiveness upon a paralyzed man. The crowd then responds with amazement and glorify God when the man is healed. There is more excitement in verses 13-15 with a crowd gathering again, Matthew Levi responding favourably to the call to follow, and the tax collectors and sinners wanting to be with Jesus. Then the scribes react again by questioning how Jesus could possibly hang out with sinners in verse 16. They are then upset with Jesus in verses 18 and 24 over his disciples’ lack of religious observances. When Jesus heals on a sabbath day, they conspire with the Herodians in 3:6 to destroy him. To put this reaction to Jesus in perspective, Pharisees wanting an alliance with Herodians would be like Hillary Clinton seeking an alliance with Donald Trump. That is how much the religious leaders want Jesus dead.

There are a few things to notice about all this. First we see two very different reactions to Jesus. One is full of excitement and the embracing of Jesus. The other is full of fear and rejection. We see different results based on the reactions. Those who respond positively to Jesus experience healing and growth. Good things are happening! On the other hand, those who respond negatively end up thinking about murder. We also see two different kinds of people; those who know they have needs, and those who think they are needed.

Do you notice something further about those who reject Jesus and seek his destruction? They are powerful men, men of influence. The very first person to have tried to destroy Jesus was King Herod, another powerful man. Herod, representing political power wants Jesus dead and in trying to destroy Jesus, kills many infants. The Pharisees of Mark 2, representing religious power, are also bent on destruction. Unfortunately, bad things still happen around powerful men.

What lessons are here for powerful men today?

First, when powerful men meet Jesus, they should be prepared to trade in their pride for humility. They should learn a lesson from King David who had learned to say “The Lord is my Shepherd” (Psalm 23:1). While our minds tend to run to the thought of a shepherd’s protection and care, the thought is also of the shepherd’s authority. King David knew that he was answerable to a higher authority. He was not the true king. God was, and is. Powerful men do well to remember that.

Second, when powerful men meet Jesus, they should be prepared to trade in their fear for trust. Herod feared losing his Kingdom to a baby born in Bethlehem. The Pharisees feared losing their grip on the people through religion. Both would have done well to trust what God was doing in their midst, and in fact to join in.

Third, when powerful men meet Jesus, they should be prepared to trade in their religion for relationship. Not only are the scribes powerful, they are also religious which can be a deadly combination. We have many examples of this with a fundamentalist form of Islam leading the way. When you see darker moments within Christianity look deeper and you will see people exercising religion without a solid and growing relationship with Christ.

Fourth, when powerful men meet Jesus, they should be prepared to trade in their own evil and embrace the goodness of Jesus. Jesus raised the question of good and evil:

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. Mark 3:1-6 (NRSV emphasis mine)

It is ironic that the religious leaders do not respond by stating the obvious correct answer but instead react by living out the wrong one. They succumb to the evil in their hearts. They storm out on the very person who can help them with that!

In our day powerful men are being called out for bad deeds. We can think of #metoo and the “Time’s Up” movement. People in our day are realizing that even in a secular society, morality matters and sexual freedom is a myth. There must be limits and boundaries, but who, or better, Who gets to set them? Just think of how these powerful men would have treated women differently had they been embracing the goodness of Jesus.

You may not be powerful, or a man, but do you need to make similar trades in your life? Trading pride for humility, fear for trust, religion for relationship, and our evil for His goodness? Not to rush you, but the trade deadline is coming up!

Jesus. An Ordinary Person?

Who is Jesus? This question is the most important question we could ever face. It is a much more significant question than; “Do you like organized religion? Do you like Christianity? Do you like church and find it relevant?”

Many suggestions are put forward, but they fall into only three categories:

  1. Jesus is fictional. He is a figment of someone’s imagination.
  2. Jesus was an ordinary person. He became extraordinary in people’s minds sometime after his death.
  3. Jesus is no ordinary person. In Christian thinking, he was, is, and always will be extraordinary, being God incarnate.

Out of these three options, this question is really only a choice between two of them. If you think that Jesus is pure fiction, then most of history, and especially all of ancient history must be seen as pure fiction also. People who really want Jesus to go away may be comfortable with that, but most historians are not. If you are being consistent in matters of history, there is really only one question: Is Jesus an ordinary person, or an extraordinary person?

The first chapter of Mark will help us know how Mark, at least, would answer that. Consider:

  • In the very first verse Jesus is no ordinary person, but is the Messiah (Christ) plus the Son of God:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mark 1:1

  • In verses 2 and 3, the prophecies quoted refer to the coming, not just of a prophet, or king, but of God Himself. These are understood to be pointing to Jesus:

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’ ” Mark 1:2-3

  • In verse 7, John the baptizer knows he is not worthy of Jesus, stating that he is not even worthy to do the task of a slave. Jesus is on another level entirely:

He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. Mark 1:7

  • Continuing on with John the baptizer, in verse 8 we need to ask who can baptize with the Holy Spirit except God Himself?

I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Mark 1:8

  • In verse 11 Jesus is referred to with a title that would only previously be applied to the king of Israel, or the nation as a whole. We are to understand that Jesus is king, and in some way representative of all Israel. Also, where the kings and and the nation were prone to failure, Jesus gets it right:

And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Mark 1:11

  • In verse 13 when Jesus is tempted in the wilderness for 40 days we are to think of the 40 years God’s people spent in the wilderness before entering the promised Land. They spent that long in the wilderness because, unlike Jesus, they fell to temptation and sinned:

He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Mark 1:13

  • In verse 18 Jesus is the one who is worth immediately leaving everything to follow:

And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. Mark 1:17-18

  • In verses 21 and 22 the teaching of Jesus was extraordinary:

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Mark 1:21-22

  • In verse 24 Jesus is identified by an unclean spirit as “the Holy One of God”.  The spirit knows that Jesus is extraordinary and has power over evil:

Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “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.” Mark 1:23-24

  • In verses 25 and 26 the spirit is under Jesus’ authority:

But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. Mark 1:25-26

  • In verse 27 the people recognize that not only does Jesus teach with authority, his word has authority. This reminds us of Someone else Who spoke with authority and had extraordinary results (see Genesis 1):

They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” Mark 1:27

  • In verses 40 and following the compassion of Jesus is extraordinary. Notice how Jesus touches the leper before healing him. Something no ordinary person would do!

A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Mark 1:40-41

Is Jesus an ordinary person or an extraordinary person? Mark certainly knows him to be extraordinary!

Mark was not one of the 12 disciples, so we might ask how would he know? As a Christian I can point to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but I wouldn’t expect a non-Christian to be convinced by that. However, we can appeal to history. Mark was known to be a close companion of Peter and to have written down the Gospel based on Peter’s testimony and preaching. Peter, of course, knew Jesus very well. Mark’s interest in Jesus may have been stirred prior to Jesus’ crucifixion as some scholars think that he may be the young man who fled naked at the arrest of Jesus in Mark chapter 14. Further, in the process of settling on which books were authoritative for the Church, the early Christians only considered writings that were known to be closely associated with eyewitnesses, the apostles. Mark wrote his Gospel account while eyewitnesses were still alive, so his facts could be checked. All the New Testament documents, dating from closer to the events than make grand fictions possible, say the same thing as Mark chapter 1. Jesus is no ordinary person.

The eyewitnesses to Jesus were all saying the same things: The teaching of Jesus was extraordinary, the miracles of Jesus were extraordinary, and the resurrection of Jesus was extraordinary. Also, the fulfillment of the promises, given to the people who have a long testimony of God’s involvement with them, is extraordinary. We have the advantage that 2,000 years later, we can say that the legacy of Jesus has been extraordinary. The positive impact of Jesus, on individuals and society alike, has been profound! To summarize, Jesus was no ordinary man, but is extraordinary. That God loves us enough to do what He has done for us in Jesus is extraordinary!

At the centre of Mark chapter one is this:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Mark 1:14-15

Such an extraordinary person, such extraordinary love, demands a life that is anything but ordinary.

(All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)