Devotional: “Cut It Out” (Mark 9:42-50)

August 2nd, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Mark concludes this series of short stories by giving us a collection of Jesus’ sayings about the cost of discipleship. He begins by warning those who cause immature believers to “stumble”—that is, fall away from the faith—in very strong language. It would be better for them to die a painful, public death than face the wrath of God in the age to come.


But, of course, we usually don’t need anyone else’s help to stumble. We are pretty good at causing ourselves to stumble, gratifying—as we so often do—the flesh instead of the Spirit. So Jesus gets even stronger in his words to us about us.


Is there anything in your life causing you to sin? Then cut it out. Literally. If your eyes cause you to sin, gouge them out—because it would be better to be blind and reconciled to God than sighted and damned. If your hand causes you to sin, amputate it—because it would be better to be maimed and reconciled to God than whole and damned. If you are wounded, and the wound turns gangrene, you must amputate the diseased member or die. Is it any different with our sin? This is not hypothetical. I’m not sure this is even meant to be exaggeration. We need to attack the sin in our lives ruthlessly. And that will mean making some serious cuts.


We need to act proportionately radical to the degree of sin in our lives. Consider, for example, two men whom Jesus encounters who have succumbed to the sin of greed. Zacchaeus meets Jesus and voluntarily divests himself of his wealth. He knows what a serious issue it is in his life, so he elects to cut out half his income by giving it to those in need. Sin was serious, so he takes a serious step.


But now consider the rich young ruler. His sin runs deeper, so Jesus calls him to make a truly radical amputation: to get rid of all his possessions. Will it cripple him for life? Yes, absolutely. But it will also free him to live true life in fellowship with the Father. He is unwilling, and goes to damnation instead—a damnation Jesus describes all too clearly in this passage (cf. verse 48).


But what about us? Is there a sin that threatens to destroy? Lust? Greed? Pride? Bitterness? Selfishness? Envy? Anger? Jesus’ words show us precisely what needs to be done.


Will it be easy? Of course not. Jesus never intended it to be. As he says, “Everyone will be salted with fire” (verse 49). Referring to Leviticus 2:13, Jesus teaches that we are to offer ourselves to God like a sacrifice. Every sacrifice was sprinkled with salt, and then consumed totally by the fire. That is what our lives should be: a total, irrevocable offering to God.


If we have been salted with fire—if we have given ourselves totally to God—then we will be “salty” disciples, so to speak. Our character will reflect the sacrifice we have made. We will be the savor of God in an unsavory world—speaking truth in grace (cf. Colossians 4:6), adding wisdom and integrity, preserving and ministering in his name.


Do you want to be great? Then cut it out. Whatever it is that keeps you from living wholly for him, a purified and purifying substance in a corrupted world.


Questions for Reflection and Application

  1. What sin threatens to destroy your life? What steps do you need to take to cut it out before it kills you—body and soul? Are you taking wimpy, easy steps to put a bandage on the problem? Or are you going to take ruthless, uncompromising steps to amputate the issue, even at great cost to yourself? Let someone know what steps you plan to take.
  2. Are you a “salty” disciple? When people are around you, do they “taste and see that the Lord is good” by your witness? Or have you lost your saltiness through compromise and complacency? Offer yourself to God as a total, irrevocable sacrifice.

Devotional: “Learn to Share” (Mark 9:38-41)

August 2nd, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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The disciples have not learned yesterday’s lesson. Still overrun by a desire for status and recognition, they turn to jealousy, rivalry, and sectarianism. When one of them spots a rival disciple casting out a demon in Jesus’ name, he quickly turns tattle-tale.


The immaturity of the moment is palpable. First, remember that the disciples have just had a rather publicly unsuccessful bout with exorcism (cf. Mark 9:14-29). So John seems to be saying, “Make him stop doing what we’re unable to do.” It smacks of jealousy. Second, and much more frightening, is the way John describes the issue: “We told him to stop because he was not following us” (verse 38). The overweening pride and unadulterated audacity of this claim! Who cares if this man isn’t following John! or Peter! or any of the other disciples! John’s pride has got the better of him. He should have said, “He wasn’t following you,” but then . . . that might not be true.


After all, Jesus says, “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us” (verses 39-40). The man is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, we should remember, and his success proves the genuineness of his commitment (read about the sons of Sceva in Acts 19:13-16 to see what happens to those who aren’t genuinely committed to Christ when trying to cast out demons in his name). He cannot possibly be an enemy of Christ.


Jesus here proclaims a certain broad-minded inclusiveness that the church has often forgotten. We like to exclude others from our “inner ring” to remind ourselves how much more important, smarter, better, richer, etc. we are than others. Church is not usually an exception unfortunately. It is interesting to note that infighting, quarrels, rivalries, and factions usually develop when a church stops reaching out. Once we become more concerned about our belonging to the group, rather than helping others to belong as well, we turn into the worst of our schoolyard selves. “You can’t play with us. You don’t belong to this group. Go find someone else.”


This is not the attitude of Christ. Do you want to be great? Then learn to share. Share the good news of Christ indiscriminately. Share the community of Christ with all who will come. And maybe even share a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus with someone in need (verse 41).


Questions for Reflection and Application

  1. Can you recall a time when you displayed an attitude similar to John’s in this story? How did you try to exclude someone? Why do you think you did it—that is, what particular brand of selfishness motivated your behavior? Has this been a recurring sin in your life? Is it a sin you have ever brought into the church? Do you need to repent of this sin and confess it to someone else? If so, do it.
  2. In what ways has the church—local or universal—tended towards exclusivity instead of a biblical inclusivity? (Make sure you distinguish between inclusiveness and relativism. After all, Jesus does say elsewhere, “Whoever is not with me is against me”!) How can you help us become more lovingly inclusive?
  3. Are there people with whom you need to share more? Does this include the lost? How will you share the gospel with them? Does this include the many suffering under systemic poverty globally? How will you bring them a “cup of cold water” in the name of Jesus?

Devotional: “Act Like a Child” (Mark 9:30-37)

July 31st, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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This story opens with Jesus predicting his brutal death for a second time. The disciples are either unwilling or unable to understand what he means by this. They expect a conquering military king, so his death makes little sense to them. But they are afraid to ask him anymore about it—probably because they are scared to hear the answer he might give. They prefer their uncomprehending delusions.


As they continue on their way to Capernaum, they do not keep silent—even if they won’t ask Jesus about the cross. Instead they fall to arguing about which of the disciples is the greatest. Presumably this quarrel arises because three have seemed to be favored by Jesus (Peter, James and John), and so might have a claim to greatness, and the others have failed to cast out a demon in the meantime, and so might be disparaged as less than great.


Whatever the cause of this schoolyard squabble, we cannot miss the absurd incongruity of the moment. Jesus has just said he is going to die an ignominious death for the sake of his people—the fullest expression of self-sacrificing love the world will ever know; his disciples respond by playing spiritual King of the Hill. A more striking contrast in attitudes about self I cannot fathom.


Rather than rebuke them sharply, Jesus gives them an object lesson. One of the most profound kingdom reversals—when Jesus takes an upside-down world and flips it right-side up—concerns greatness. “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (verse 35). That is true greatness—the greatness of the Servant King. To illustrate his point, he takes a child in his arms—a child accorded no status in that cultural context. In fact, in Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke), the word for child and servant were the same. Effectively, Jesus says, “You must become like this little child, who owns neither status nor significance in the eyes of the world, whose very name means servant.” This is what we embrace when we embrace the call of Christ.


As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” One of the weightiest deaths we die in following Christ is to our own status-seeking. Do you want to be great like Jesus? Then act like a child. Make yourself nothing, the servant of all.


Questions for Reflection and Application

  1. In what ways do you still seek status and recognition? How will you put these desires to death in the Spirit for the sake of Christ?
  2. Would those closest to you think of you as one who loves to serve or one who loves to be served? How will you pursue a lifestyle of service towards others?
  3. Think of at least one practical way you can humble yourself and serve someone else (anonymously, ideally) each day for the rest of the week.

Devotional: Mark 9:14-29

July 30th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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When Jesus, Peter, James and John return to the rest of the group, they find the other disciples arguing with a large crowd. Seeing Jesus, the crowd hurries to him, and he questions them about the argument.


It seems the disciples had attempted an exorcism in Jesus’ absence, and it hadn’t gone too well. While this probably should have driven everyone present to prayer, instead it leads to pettiness, factionalism, and childish bickering. What causes the argument? Most likely, in the eyes of the crowd—and especially the religious leaders—the failure of the disciples reflects poorly on the Master. He must not be much of a man or a teacher if his disciples can’t manage something as basic as an exorcism. Reeling with shame and indignation, the disciples push back, and the argument erupts.


In all this, the victim has been forgotten. So the father reminds them.


His heartbreaking account of his son’s affliction reminds us of the enemy’s ultimate aims: to destroy humanity. He knows he cannot defeat the Father, so he attacks God’s children, the apple of his eye, simply to wound and offend.


Jesus recognizes that the issue is a lack of faith (verse 19). He has the boy brought to him, and asks the boy’s father a few questions. The father replies, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us” (verse 22).


Jesus is unimpressed by the conditional language. If? This is the Son of God! And those of who have gone with Mark to the Mount of Transfiguration have heard it directly from God the Father! But the boy’s father has only seen the failure of Jesus’ disciples, and he is left with very human doubt.


His reply to Jesus’ gentle rebuke captures the heart of discipleship as well as any one sentence can: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (verse 24). The trouble with our faith so often is that we worry about the subject when we should focus on the object. It is not our faith that matters, but our faith in Christ that matters. And he is sufficient for every circumstance, trial, and temptation. He is more than enough.


That was the problem the disciples had, why they couldn’t cast the demon out. They were trying it in their own power—testing to see if they had enough faith—rather than humbly depending on the object of their faith, remembering that he has enough power.


When the disciples timidly seek an explanation for their failure, Jesus reminds them of this point exactly: “This kind can come out only by prayer” (verse 29). Prayer is the surest expression of faith, dependence even; it is the complete absence of self-reliance. “I know I cannot do this on my own, so I must seek the help of another. If this is going to happen, it will happen only in humble submission to the Father.”


In other words, “I do believe; only help me overcome my unbelief.”


Questions for Reflection and Application

  1. What doubts do you have? Do they center on God’s existence, goodness, presence, or love? Will you pray in humble submission, like the boy’s father, that God will help you overcome your unbelief?
  2. Do you tend towards self-reliance or humble dependence? How do you know? What action steps will you take to overcome self-reliance in the areas of your life where you know you are “going it alone” as the disciples tried? How will you cultivate an attitude of humble dependence?
  3. Evaluate your prayer life. If people were to listen to all of your prayers, would they think you believe in God and trust that only he can bring about change? Or would they think—probably because of an absence of prayers about different subjects—that you are depending on yourself? What changes do you need to make in your prayer life? Will you make them?

Devotional: Mark 9:2-13

July 30th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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The story of the Transfiguration thunders with all the awe and wonder of Mount Sinai. Just as Moses and three companions climbed the mount to witness a vision of divine glory, just as God himself speaks—just as the whole event takes place “after six days” even! (Exodus 24:1-16)—so now Jesus and his three followers climb to a brief interlude of glory.


When they reach the top of the mount, Jesus is transfigured. He is not just another Moses, and this is not just another Sinai. He is more than that. The vision of divine glory that Peter, James and John behold is not of God the Father, but God the Son—come in the flesh.


As Peter, James and John adjust to the dazzling light, they notice Elijah and Moses speaking with Jesus. Why do they come? Not, as many have thought before, to represent the Law and the Prophets (as a non-writing prophet, Elijah would be a strange choice in that regard). Given the conversation that follows about Elijah in verses 12-13, and the context of the passage as a whole, the focus seems to be on the eschatological hope of the messianic age. The disciples remember that Elijah must return before the Messiah can come. And every pious Jew longed for the appearance of the “Prophet like Moses” prophesied in Deuteronomy 18:15-19. As harbingers of this blessed hope, the disciples should have embraced their coming as a sign that Jesus is indeed the Messiah!


But they just don’t seem ready for it yet. Peter asks to build three shelters, probably as a clumsy way of signaling a sense of occasion. He wants the moment to continue—wouldn’t we all want it to?—and so he offers a modest proposal to do just that. The problem, though, is, “He did not know what to say, they were so frightened” (verse 6). Incomprehension leads to fear, and, as is so often the case in Peter’s life, fear leads to impulsive speech.


So Another speaks. Out of the mountain-covering cloud—the cloud of divine glory that covered the Tabernacle and Temple in days of old—God is heard to speak. After hundreds of years of silence and seeming absence, God has manifested himself in glory and direct communication. This is a new level of divine revelation.


What does God speak? “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Jesus is the Prophet like Moses, and deserves our full attention. But he is more than that. He is the beloved Son of God. In the light of this new information, Peter’s proposal to build shelters for all three dignified men seems even more out of place, for Moses and Elijah are naught but willing servants of the Son of God, Jesus, to whom all glory is due!


And just like that, it is over. “Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus” (verse 8). Why was it so short? It was only ever meant to be a glimpse of future glory—not the path. The disciples—and we with them!—prefer a discipleship path of easy glory. But Mark reminds us that this is not the Way the Master followed. If we are to follow him to glory, the path will lead us up another mount, the hill of Calvary.


Questions for Reflection and Application

  1. As you reflect honestly on your thoughts, words, and deeds, do you find any areas of your life where you put others (people, things, ideas, etc.) on an equal plane with Jesus? That is, do you have any of Peter in you, desiring to build three shelters to three equal dignitaries, instead of offering your undivided, single-minded allegiance to Jesus alone?
  2. What words of Jesus do you need to “listen to” at this point in your life? Where are you neglecting his words because of their implications for your life? What steps will you take to hear and obey them? Will you consider memorizing some of them as part of this process?
  3. Is your discipleship one of easy glory? Or is it a cross-centered discipleship? Have you compromised your faith at any point to avoid the suffering that Jesus has called us to? (E.g., have you kept from sharing the faith because you fear the rejection that might come?)

Playing Favorites?

January 9th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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The charge of favoritism arises inevitably whenever real disciple-making happens. Disciple-makers recognize that, as humans, we cannot build into everyone we know equally. This is ministerial humility. We are not God; we haven’t the ubiquity to be able to be all things to all people in our sphere of influence. And so choices must be made. We must choose to devote ourselves to some—a student or member of the youth group, a friend or co-worker—to the neglect of others.


When the ineluctable outcry swells, the simplest defense is to note that we are following after our Master. Jesus did not offer himself equally to everyone when he walked the earth. He had concentric circles of depth. To the crowds he scattered occasional seed (compare Mark 4:1-9 with 4:10-12); to others he shared brief, passing moments only (cf. Mark 5:18-19). Though others followed him throughout his ministry, were with him from the beginning (cf. Acts 1:21-23), he chooses twelve only to be his disciples. And even of those twelve, he devotes especial time to three—Peter, James, and John (cf. Mark 9:2).


One can only imagine the petty jealousy that must have been felt from time to time. Why James and not Matthew? Why Judas and not Matthias? Did the disciples respond with snickers and snide comments when Jesus called Peter the rock? Such puerility was not beneath them (cf. Mark 10:35-37, 41). And yet, the apparent unfairness notwithstanding, this is the course Christ chose.


Each of those men went on to make disciples of their own; did they follow in their Master’s footsteps? Peter had Mark, if tradition is correct; Paul had Timothy and Titus; John had Polycarp and Ignatius. They knew that the kingdom of God would expand not by spreading ourselves too thin, but by building deeply into a few men or women at a time—who could turn around and make disciples of their own.


So must it be with us. We build into the few in order to reach the many. We make disciples who make disciples who make disciples (ad infinitum). Remember, especially when you face complaint and accusation, if Christ had been “fair,” none of us would be here in the church today.