Wanting the Growth Without Taking the Risk

JesusAppearsToThomasI have been reading through Acts and one thing that has jumped out at me was their willingness to take risks for the kingdom. It starts fast…Acts 2 Peter preaches a bold sermon, telling the crowd that they killed the Messiah but that God was still inviting them to repentance and reconciliation. The result? Three thousand are baptized! After that they challenged the Pharisees and Sanhedrin, disobeying the orders of the religious “authorities” of their day. They were imprisoned, flogged, and mocked.The result? They grew to five thousand! All that and you are only to Acts 5!

Why were they so willing to step out like they did? What was it about all that had lead up to this in the Gospels through Acts 1 that was so influential in emboldening these men to do these things? Two things are mentioned in Acts 1 that are pivotal to their boldness and risk-taking behaviors. 1) Their encounter with the resurrected Lord. Jesus underwent the worst possible treatment and experienced the most agonizing death imaginable. Even through all of that, God raised Jesus back to life. Experiencing the risen Lord would embolden you. It would ready you to take great risks for the kingdom. 2) The coming of the Holy Spirit. God equipped and empowered them through the Holy Spirit to take on the task of taking the Gospel message to the world.

One thing you will notice in the early chapters of Acts is that the church is growing and that growth is usually preceded by a risky presentation of the Gospel or a manifestation of the power of God (like miraculous healing) that results in the growth of the church but also further persecution. Each time they faced challenges, they prayed harder and God responded with further confirmation of their ministry and preaching by giving them grace (Acts 4:33) and growth (from a few hundred to over 5000).

Church growth doesn’t come easy. Many ministry movements have tried to provide riskless solutions that will draw people in but we learn in Acts that ultimately we are going to have to take some risks to see the kingdom grow. When we do, God will be right in the middle of it all. How many things do we start that if God doesn’t show up and bless it the whole thing is destined to fall apart? We all want the growth but few are taking the risks that are required to get there.


Matthew’s Explanation of the “Messianic Secret”

One of the big topics in the Gospel of Mark is what is known as the “Messianic Secret”. Over and over again in Mark, Jesus tells people not to tell others about who he is. This happens up until Mark 8 when Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is and Peter says he is the Christ or Messiah. It seems kind of strange for Jesus to tell others not to tell people about what they have seen until half way through the book. Some believe the reason for this is because Jesus didn’t want people to misunderstand his mission and follow him for all the wrong reasons (to receive food like when he fed the 5000 in Mark 6) (Jesus 101, p 22).

I was reading in Matthew today and it looks like Matthew actually gives an explanation as to why Jesus told people not to tell. It has to do with fulfillment of prophesy from Isaiah 42:1-4. Here is what Matthew tells us in Matthew 12:13-21,

13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

God’s Chosen Servant

15 Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. Many followed him, and he healed all their sick, 16 warning them not to tell who he was. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

18 “Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
19 He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
20 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he leads justice to victory.
21     In his name the nations will put their hope.”

Am I reading that right? Why haven’t I read anyone just offering Matthew’s explanation and why have so many tried so many other explanations if it is right there? Maybe this has been mentioned in commentaries dozens of times and I am just ignorant. This link seems to say the prophesy isn’t about the secret but instead points back to Jesus (in that instance) being unwilling to engage the Pharisees. I did a little more poking around and the Holman Bible Dictionary offers this as a possibility. Thoughts?

Dr. Maritottini on Messianic Expectations of the Old Testament

Dr. Mariottini constantly delivers quality material. This one is no exception. Here is the link.

Gospel of John 12:20-33 – Greeks Want to See Jesus

The triumphal entry concludes with jealousy from the Pharisees and the statement, “Look how the whole world has gone after him.” (12:19). The very next verse shows how true that statement was. Some Greeks approach Philip and ask to see Jesus. Philip and Andrew ask Jesus if this would be okay and, in typical Jesus fashion, he answers their question without appearing to answer their question. They ask if it is okay for them to come and see him and he talks about seeds falling to the ground and dying, love and hating your life, and what it means to be a disciple. A bit more than the yes or no Philip and Andrew were probably expecting.

So how is Jesus’ response to this request a response to this request? All through Jesus’ ministry in John he has talked about his ultimate glorification in the cross. That is not how we would typically think of glorification but Jesus knew what was going to happen and where it was leading. The Greeks wanted to see Jesus because of all they had heard of him but Jesus knew that miracles and teaching were not even going to compare to the events that were about to unfold. The passion week would be the ultimate fulfillment of the Pharisees’ statement in 12:19, that the whole world was going after him. Ultimately Jesus answer to their request comes in John 12:32, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” – The Greeks came to see Jesus and even though he wouldn’t go and spend time with them now, he knew that being put on the cross and again raised from the death in his resurrection would be more than the Greeks who were now there to see him could even know to ask for or experience.

So what was Jesus’ answer to their request? It was, in a round about way, “Not yet…there is something bigger and better to come that will fulfill their request and draw them into something much bigger, grander, and with bigger implications than anything they might expect.

One last note of interest in this passage is that when Jesus usually speaks cryptically like this no one gets it…not the disciples and certainly not the crowds. But they do! They know he is speaking about his death through crucifixion because they ask him how the Son of Man can both be “lifted up” and live forever (12:34).

It is strange for Jesus to turn someone away but Jesus knew there were better things in store and that ultimately if they continued to seek him out they would eventually have eternal life but first Jesus must endure the cross and walk out of the tomb alive. It also seems strange to us that the most faith building thing God can do at times is to answer us with “Not yet…wait and see.” We often experience that as a “No” but it takes faith to carry us through to the “wait and see” part. If we are willing to wait our faith can be taken to the next level. Impatience is often lethal to the maturation of our faith.

Gospel of John 8:12-59 – Jesus Gets Testy

John 8:12-59 contains some of the best known lines in John but they aren’t said to a loving, accepting mob of fervent believers. They are spoken to a mostly obnoxious and rebellious group in Jerusalem. In 8:12 Jesus says he is the light of the world. One of the great “I am” statements and one of the better known verses in John. The response? The Pharisees challenge his words and question his acting as his own witness to the truth of his comments. In 8:31-32 we have the famous line, “then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” The response? We have never been slaves to anyone! Most of them just aren’t getting it and Jesus is about to lay into them for it.

In John 8 Jesus is finally getting testy. For instance, in John 5:31-47 Jesus answers their apparent questions regarding his authority by appealing to multiple witnesses. According to the Law there had to be 2-3 witnesses for testimony to be considered valid (See Deut 19:15). If Jesus is the only one speaking for himself it doesn’t hold up in court. In John 5 Jesus freely admits that his testimony concerning himself cannot be considered valid (5:31) but that he has more witnesses who have testified concerning who he is: John the Baptist (5:33), Jesus’ miracles (5:36), God (5:37), the scriptures (5:39), and Moses (5:36). But now in John 8 Jesus says that he has two witnesses that make his case valid: himself and God. That seems to contradict his point in John 5. It seems to me that the first time around Jesus was willing to work with them to prove his point. He was patient and willing to lay out his case. But by John 8 he is ready for them to get it. By this point his testimony and words should speak for themselves and be heard as valid. If God himself spoke to them would God need 2-3 witnesses to confirm it as true? No. And neither does Jesus (the point he is making in John 8 – sent by God, obedient to God, etc). No more time to go back to the basics and lay out his case again. They should get it by now! His message should be producing its intended effect – faith.

Jesus doesn’t hold back in John 8. He says they are “from below” and “of this world” in 8:23, that they would die in their sins if they don’t believe in Jesus (8:24), that they are children of the devil for not loving and believing in him (8:44), and that they do not belong to God (8:47). None of these were popular expressions in their day! The crowd started eyeing the stones around them to see who would get dibs on the big pointy ones. Don’t you wonder why the Romans didn’t try to do a better job of keeping the temple area free from stoning usable stones?

What is crazy to me in the whole matter is by their actions they confirm exactly what Jesus said was in their heart. Jesus said they follow their father the devil who was a murderer and deceiver. They reject the claim and then try to stone Jesus for exposing the deceit that was in their hearts! In 8:12 Jesus told us he was the light of the world and starting with the woman caught in adultery, then her accusers, and last this crowd by the temple Jesus thoroughly exposes either life and light or death and darkness in the lives of those around him.

How do we respond when the truth about our lives is fully revealed? Do we embrace it or do we kick, scream and fight against it? Most of the crowd in John 8 were determined to hold Jesus at arms length and to reject him no matter how futile their efforts to prove him wrong were. You see it in the way they jumped from one thing to another. We are children of Abraham, no…children of God. Under Rome but not slaves to anyone…yadda, yadda, yadda. They tried to discredit him rather than listen to him – Aren’t you are a Samaritan and demon possessed (8:48)? As if they expected him to say, “Why yes I am.”?

The ultimate exposure of their hearts was seen in what their hearts told their hands to do – pick up rocks to keep from having to undergo the paradigm shift of Jesus as Lord. Do you ever guard your heart so tightly that you keep God out and make it impossible for him to effect any possible change to your thinking, actions, and attitudes? Or are you willing to embrace the truth even if it dings our pride, forces us to admit we were wrong, and humbles us to the point of total surrender? Hopefully it doesn’t take Jesus getting testy with us before we finally put our faith in him but if that’s what it takes he is certainly willing to bring it.

Gospel of John 4:28 – Are You Still Holding Onto Your Water Jar

In John 4 there is a woman who had been coming at noon to draw water by herself in the heat of the day. It could be she came at the hottest hour of the day to avoid the shame she faced from her community over her “living situation.” She has been married five times (Jewish custom would only allow three) and is now with her live in boyfriend. Not only that but she is a Samaritan, the descendant of Jewish sell outs and those who intermarried with the surrounding nations. On top of that she is a she, and Jewish tradition said that any Samaritan woman was unclean because they were supposedly perpetually on their cycle. Not really the moral and ethical exemplar the town of Sychar would send in a delegation to meet with the Messiah.

With so many strikes against her Jesus comes into her world but invites her to come into his. He asks her for water but then offers her another kind of water, the living kind. In just a few short verses this uneducated, adulterous, Samaritan woman gets what Nicodemus, the Pharisee and teacher of the law, wrestled with in the previous chapter. When she figured out Jesus was the Messiah she left to go tell others. What is telling is she left her water jar behind (John 4:28). Why? She didn’t need it any more because she now realized there was something better for her. In 4:15 she asked for living water so she wouldn’t have to keep coming out to draw water anymore. When she received it, she didn’t need that old jar anymore…she didn’t need what had become obsolete. I think John pointed out that small detail for a reason and that reason was to show that when Jesus reveals himself to us there are certain things that have to be left behind because they no longer have a purpose in the life of a Christian. Why else note such an “insignificant detail”?

It seems that she got it. It was not that she thought she would never need another drop of water to drink. It was that she realized there were more important things in life than wells and water jars and she just had to tell someone, anyone about it. In going into that city she threw aside all the social stigma and alienation she had faced because she had something they needed. It leaves us with the question, “What water jars are you still carrying around?” It is very tempting in this life to hold onto water jars, those things that seem to sustain us and that we certainly feel we couldn’t live without. Maybe there are things we have relied on more than God and maybe it is time to let go of our water jars, as scary as that may be, and embrace the living water that will enable us to never again need those old, worn out water jars ever again.

Why Did They Miss Jesus as the Messiah? What Can We Learn from that?

Hindsight is 20/20. Looking back we read the prophesies and see how he fulfilled them so specifically. We read about the miracles, his teaching with authority and not as the scribes. The Gospels make it clear that Jesus was the Messiah. That is the point they set out to prove. Some go about it differently than others. Mark highlights the times Jesus tried to keep it secret for fear of being misunderstood (Mark 1:43-44, 8:27-30). Matthew points out his fulfillment of many Old Testament scriptures that they should have readily known about. John states that his gospel was written for the sole purpose of producing faith in the life of the hearer or reader of the Gospel (John 20:31). There were so many road markers for people to “get it,” especially for the in crowd.

What is interesting is that some people did get it. Some people understood who Jesus was even if they didn’t quite understand all the implications. Simon Peter figured it out by chapter 8 of Mark. The evil spirit in Mark 3 knew who Jesus was and confessed him to be the Son of God. The centurion at the foot of the cross got it in Mark 15 even though he had no Jewish background or knowledge of the Law and Prophets he understood Jesus to be divine based only upon the sign over his head “King of the Jews”, seeing his death and hearing him cry out (Mark 15:38) he made confession of Jesus’ divinity.

How is it that those with little to no background “get it” but those who had all the head knowledge they needed fail to grasp Jesus as the Messiah. It wasn’t so much that they couldn’t get it. They didn’t want to get it. They didn’t want the carpenter from Nazareth to be the Messiah because they felt upstaged by him. They couldn’t see past losing their own authority. They couldn’t see past their own self-righteousness. In the end they crucified the son of God and denied his very divinity that even a pagan centurion was able to figure out.

I think it is important for us to realize that it is just as possible for us to blind ourselves to the divinity of Christ. It is just as easy for us to shrink him down to the size of a dashboard mounted Jesus or a silver cross necklace Jesus. It is just as possible today to feel upstaged by him or fear what his authority in our lives might mean. When all the while he is the divine Son of God who demands lordship over our lives. As we read the Gospels lets allow our faith in who Jesus is and the resulting demands He places on our lives overwhelm any selfish desires we might have that could possibly supplant his lordship in our lives. Let no one accuse us of failing to “get it” when many of us have grown up with all the evidence right before our very eyes. Sometimes we fail to recognize or appreciate the people and things we are most familiar with.

Were Gentiles Allowed in the Church After the Jews Rejected Christ?

Growing up I heard on numerous occasions that in order for the Gentiles (that is, non-Jews) to be allowed to become Christians the Jews first had to reject the offer of Christianity. The story goes something like this – Jesus died and rose again. The offer of salvation through Christ came first for the Jews. God got fed up when the Jews rejected Christ and so he finally offered salvation to the Gentiles. You may have heard a different version but that is what I have heard people say. I mentioned this in our Romans class last night and several in the class were familiar with this and agreed with this storyline so I am not just making things up here. This line of thinking really is out there. Here is how Jacob Jervell lays out this supposed story of why the Gospel was offered to the Gentiles:

“Luke describes the rejection of the Christian proclamation on the part of the Jewish people. Only after and because Israel has rejected the gospel, and for that reason has itself been rejected, do the missionaries turn to Gentiles. Because of the behavior of Israel, the Gentiles mission was set free, so that precisely the Jewish rejection of the missionary message proved to be the decisive presupposition for the Gentile mission.” (Luke and the People of God, 41).

I am indebted to Jervell for helping open my eyes to the fact that such a story line is problematic. There are components of Acts that lend itself to this theory – the fact that the apostles would first go to a synagogue to speak to the Jews in a city before going to the Gentiles. One example is in Acts 13 where Paul and Barnabas go to Pisidian Antioch and preach in the synagogue. In 13:44-45 some of the Jews are jealous of Paul and Barnabas and so they mistreated and rejected Paul and his message. Paul’s response to them? “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’ When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord…But the Jewish leaders incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas and expelled them from their region.” That seems to confirm the theory that the Jews had to reject to open the way for the Gentiles…right?

We have a real difficulty in our interpretation to take one example and say this is the theology of the day. By that principle we could also say that people can and should receive the Holy Spirit prior to baptism based on what happened to Cornelius in Acts 10…but we know better because we understand the context of what God was doing in the Cornelius example. Just because the Jews reject Paul here and then he goes to the Gentiles does not mean that was God’s design to open the door to the Gentiles. In fact, when you really read this passage Paul is saying just the opposite. He cites Isaiah 49:6 to remind them that they are violating God’s intention of them being a light to the Gentiles. Isaiah 49 says God wanted his people to be an open door to the Gentiles because they were accepting God’s plan and not because they were rejecting it. Paul is condemning these Jewish leaders for letting their own pride get in the way of God’s actual intention – that the Jews would accept Christ and open the way for the Gentiles. Notice also that when Paul is preaching to them he is preaching to Jews and Greeks (13:16, 26)

Pair that with the stories of mass conversions in the book of Acts and tell me how you can conclude that the Jews wholesale rejected Jesus? (Thanks to Jervell, 44 for compiling several of these verses)

  1. Acts 2:41, 47 – 3,000 Jews believe in Christ and are baptized
  2. Acts 4:4 – 2,000 more Jews believe in Jesus
  3. Acts 5:14 – “more and more believed”
  4. 6:1,7 – The number of disciples was increasing at this time
  5. 9:42 – Many more believed in the Lord
  6. 12:24 – The word of the Lord continued to spread
  7. 13:43 – many Jews listened to the Gospel and continued in the grace of God
  8. 14:1 – great number of Jews and Greeks believed
  9. 17:4, 12 – Some Jews followed Paul as well as many Greeks
  10. 19:20 – the word of the Lord spread widely
  11. 21:20 – “many thousands of Jews have believed”

Wholesale rejection? Sure some rejected as all are open to make decisions based on freewill but the evidence in Acts hardly supports a Jewish rejection that opened the door to the Gentiles. Again, the opposite was God’s plan – that his people would be a light to the Gentiles. Hard to be a light if you are rejecting the message God wants them to believe. Then consider Galatians 3:14 – “He redeemed us (Jews) in order that the blessings given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” Paul says the Jews were redeemed (not that they rejected) so that the Gentiles might be blessed and come to faith in Christ Jesus (for a fuller treatment of Galatians 3 see this post). I don’t know how much more evidence we need that God’s plan (and indeed, what actually happened) was for the Jews to accept Christ first and then the Gentiles would get a chance to be reached with the Gospel. Jesus even spoke in John 10 of two groups of sheep who would hear his voice and listen – first the Jews and then the Gentiles (John 10:1-18).

I am sure many of you will disagree with me and I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Hopefully this has been as eye opening for you as it has for me.

Outreach and Reputation Risking

It never seemed to bother Jesus if his reputation was at stake when it came to reaching the lost:

– Speaking with adulterous Samaritan women at a well alone.

– Having his feet annointed by a woman with a checkered past.

– Eating with tax collectors and “sinners.”

– Associating with and even healing Gentiles.

– Being crucified because it meant our forgiveness.

People got upset with Jesus because of these things. They made many accusations in regard to these things. Ultimately Jesus ends up on a cross, shamed and reputation shattered because of his actions and claims. For Jesus redemption trumps reputation.

Listen to how people reacted to Jesus during his ministry:

“At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” – John 6:41

“But the people were displeased. “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner,” they grumbled.” – Luke 19:7 when Jesus went to have a meal with Zacchaeus.

“When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” – Luke 7:39

“Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”- Mark 2:6-7 when Jesus healed the paralytic. In Luke’s account they said – “The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” – Luke 5:21

On and on we could go. What is clear is that Jesus had a way of reaching the lost without regard to whose feathers he ruffled. Why? Because they are worth it.

Gospel of Mark – Gentile Country (Mark 7:1-8:13)

Many believe Mark was written to a Gentile audience. Mark does a lot more explaining of Jewish customs and terms than the other Gospel writers do. Mark also spends time talking about Jesus on the east side of the Sea of Galilee, which can be thought of as a lot more Gentile than on the west side of the sea. In Mark you see Jesus cross the sea back and forth and teach and do miracles on both sides. One reason he feeds 4000 and 5000 could be because the miracles are done with different audiences (Jew/Gentile) on different sides of the sea.

After walking on the water (Mark 6:45-56) they land in Gennesaret. Jesus probably still among Jews at this point in the journey. They know him and know about his power to heal the sick. Later in the chapter Jesus will enter predominantly Gentile areas and do healings there as well. But in the mean time the Pharisees come to Jesus and begin to question him about purification and defilement.  The Pharisees believed that all Jews should abide by the priestly code. Ben Witherington points out that the Pharisees believed in the priesthood of all believers…just not the way we mean it! N.T. Wright handles this chapter exceptionally well in his book Mark for everyone. He says the real issue in this passage is what does it take to be a good Jews (p. 87). I think it sums up like this. People started with LAW. Then it became LAW + tradition. Then LAW/TRADITION. Eventually it got flipped to TRADITION + law. Jesus cites the Corban tradition as something that could violate God’s law and was an example where the traditions of men became something that outweighed God’s law (7:8-13).

Jesus goes on to explain what he is talking about with some bathroom humor. He talks about what goes in and what comes out. His point is that outward purity and the appearance of holiness is a piece of cake. Inner holiness and purity is an entirely different thing and is much more difficult to maintain. Jesus is saying that if you find yourself doing and thinking unholy things it is because what is on the inside is impure. Our attitudes and actions become a holy thermometer to tell if we are spiritually well or spiritual sick. I heard a guy on the radio the other day say that his wife withholds sex from him so he occassionally hires prostitutes. He rationalized it by saying he is a good guy, doesn’t break the law, and keeps food on the table so what does it matter if he hires a prostitute. Jesus says if the heart is unclean the whole person is unclean. Rationalize all you want, it doesn’t make it right.

And as if his teachings against the Pharisees ideas of purity wasn’t enough he marches from there straight into Gentile country (Tyre) where he runs into a Gentile and heals her daughter (7:24-30). I was under the impression that this person happened into Jesus Jewish world and Jesus made an exception for her. The truth is Jesus went on her turf and it is no accident Jesus ran into a Gentile because that is where Jesus chose to travel. Then Jesus goes through Sidon into the region of the Decapolis (sound like a very Jewish place?). Jesus is going right into the heart of Gentile Country and he is healing people and goes on to feed the 4000 in chapter 8, which I am thinking at this point are Gentiles…just a guess. In 8:13 we see that Jesus and his disciples got back in the boat and went back to the other side of the sea (back to the predominantly more Jewish side of the sea).

There is an interesting connection between Mark 7 and Acts 10. In Mark 7 Jesus teaches about purity rules and the need to put what God says over the traditions of men. In 7:19 Mark makes a side note that Jesus was declaring all foods clean (where else do we hear that? Acts 10). Jesus goes on to travel right into the heart of Gentile country and heal people and perform miracles. In Acts 10 Peter is on the roof. By the way, it is thought that Mark got his gospel story from spending time with Peter. Peter gets a vision from God that also declares all foods clean (10:15) and he is immediately sent off to Gentile country to convert Gentiles to Christ. The parallels are pretty striking.