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!

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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)

Thou Shalt Not Always Keep Saying “Thou Shalt Not” (When Disagreements Arise)

The recently retired pastor was on his way to see me, the new pastor. Getting closer and hearing a lawn mower he began to wonder what the new pastor thought of the neighbour mowing the lawn on a Sunday. He came around the back of the house, and there I was, mowing the lawn. In my defence, if Sunday is to be set apart for rest, well then as a father of a 4 year-old, a 3 year-old, and a 1-year old, there was nothing more relaxing than mowing the lawn! But did I need to make a defence? Should what the Christian does on a Sunday following church be the subject of a church tribunal on Monday? As we continue our study of Romans we will gain some perspective on this on other potential disagreements:

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2 Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3 Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
5 Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Romans 14:1-5 (NRSV emphasis mine)

Even back in New Testament times Christians were squabbling over what was appropriate on the Sabbath. Except, of course, Sundays are not the Sabbath. As a commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus on a Sunday, the early Christians chose to worship on Sundays instead of on the Sabbath, which falls on a Saturday. As I am fond of saying, every Sunday is Easter Sunday. Sunday has never actually been the Sabbath, but has become known as “the Lord’s Day” which many of us set apart as a holy day, a day to gather with Christians in worship.

Back to Rome; Paul is responding in verse 5 to the fact that some Christians in Rome were thinking all Christians should observe the Sabbath, just like the Jews did, and that others thought that all Christians should exercise their freedom from the Jewish law instead. It was already well established that Jewish law was not binding on Gentile Christians, a fact we can read about in Acts 15.

There were other matters being squabbled over, such as whether one should eat meat. It was far easier for an observant Jew to keep the kosher food laws by keeping away from meat altogether, as Daniel did in Babylon. Some thought the observant Christian should do likewise. Others figured that that the kosher laws did not apply to the Christian anyway, so enjoy your protein! Paul picks up on these squabbles in verses one and two where he gives the solution: make space for each other even where there are disagreements. Rather than condemn each other, welcome each other.

We must be clear here what Paul is not saying. He is not saying that there is room for disagreement on fundamental truths. Since we are in the book of Romans, we should notice that Paul has spent the first eleven chapters contending for the truth. Truth matters! But not everything matters. Paul is not saying “welcome the heretic”. But not every disagreement is evidence of heresy. So welcome those you have disagreements with over those lesser matters.

Paul is also not saying there is room for blatant immorality. Elsewhere he condemns a church for not taking a matter of morality seriously:

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Should you not rather have mourned, so that he who has done this would have been removed from among you? 1 Corinthians 5:1-2 (NRSV)

Paul does not say “welcome the unrepentant person practicing gross immorality”. Though it was clear that Gentiles did not need to start behaving like Jews to be Christians, it was also clear that they could not keep behaving like typical Romans either. Morality matters. But not everything is a matter of immorality. So welcome those who disagree with you on matters such as meat-eating and Sabbath keeping.

What is being said between the lines is, to quote an old but oft forgotten cliché, that unity is more important than uniformity. Departing from fundamental truths destroys the unity of the Church. Indulging in immorality destroys unity between people. Differences in the lesser matters of religious expression destroys only uniformity.

As we think about Paul’s solution for disagreements, let us not too quickly pass over the instruction to be “fully convinced in your own minds” (verse 5). To become fully convinced about something, we must be seekers of truth. We must be open to changing our minds if the truth turns out to be something other than what we expected. The more we do this, the more we will find ourselves in agreement with each other anyway. Some may think I am Canadian based on my accent. Others may think I am from Northern Ireland based on certain expressions and the incomprehensibility of my Mum’s. All seekers of truth will end up agreeing that I am British-Canadian based on the evidence of my birth certificate and citizenship card. (Or am I Irish-Canadian?!) An honest seeking of truth and having a teachable spirit leads to disagreements being minimized, even disappearing.

Finally, where disagreements continue to exist, don’t try to get the last word, because God always has the last word. I encourage you to open a Bible to Romans 14:1-12 to see for yourself the following: If you have a disagreement with a brother or sister in Christ over a non-essential matter, please note that

  • God has welcomed them (v.3), therefore so should you.
  • God is their master (v4), and not you.
  • God will make them stand (v.4), so why try to knock them down?
  • They are actually making their best attempt at honouring God (v.6), and not just trying to pick a fight wth you.
  • We are all in God’s hands (vv.7-9),
  • God is the judge (v.10), and
  • “each of us will be accountable to God” (v.12).

We will today, as in Paul’s day, come across Christians we disagree with. When those disagreements are not over fundamental truths, or matters of gross immorality, we can make room for them. Disagreement with other believers is not a big deal. Being ridiculous about it is.

As for mowing the lawn on Sunday, you may be relieved to know that I no longer do that. Now I send my boys out to mow the lawn instead.