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Jesus changes the unchangeable
In this chapter I’m will try to help you to feel less spiritually knowledgeable so that you can learn something. In fact, if I can help you feel as spiritually informed as a seven-year-old child, then I will have succeeded beyond my highest expectation. That probably sounds like complete nonsense, but I’m convinced that it’s wise nonsense.
You see, there’s more than one way to teach and to learn. Jesus once told his disciples, “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15). Jesus knew that what his disciples considered completely settled about God and about themselves was blocking them from further spiritual growth. He challenged them to become more childlike so that they might grow up in the things of God.
Like Jesus’ first disciples, we have each absorbed certain erroneous ideas and habits that we have cast in personal concrete. Such barriers of the mind must be broken down for us to make spiritual progress.
Jesus often used paradoxes to shatter personal complacency. One expert in biblical literature defines a paradox as “an apparent contradiction which, upon reflection, is seen to express a genuine truth.”
Paradoxes help us learn, because they sneak up on us from a totally fresh perspective. They force us to stop and think like few other techniques can. The title of this chapter, “Wise Nonsense,” expresses a paradox. It seems contradictory because wisdom and nonsense describe opposite ideas. On reflection, we realize that some truths sound like nonsense but actually express the very wisdom of God.
Jesus expressed such a truth when he said, “Whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). Seeming contradictions abound in his teaching. Such paradoxes give us an opportunity to go back and become a little more childlike so that we can see God’s truth like spiritual adults.
The Rich Man’s Poverty
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
With a love for vivid action, Mark’s Gospel describes a young man dashing up to Jesus, falling on his knees, and repeatedly asking him what personal deeds would lead to eternal life. The young man’s question unveiled the very heart and soul of common ideas about salvation in his time. First-century Judaism taught salvation through certain merit-producing works. We might call it salvation by the “merit system.” This rich man wanted to add eternal life to the bulging portfolio of his wealth.
The Jews considered the Mosaic Law a way of earning merit with God. The Pharisees had listed over six hundred commandments from the law and then had elaborated those even further to provide additional ways of making points. The Jews imagined a steadily accumulating account of merits that God would weigh in his balances at the end of a person’s life. In the time of Jesus, the law-abiding Jew fully expected the balance to tip in his favor.
On the other hand, they regarded Gentiles as totally without any prospect of salvation because they lacked knowledge of God’s merit system. That whole concept guided the wording of the rich man’s question: “Good teacher . . . what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17).
Jesus responded to the question in strong terms; he attacked being addressed as “good teacher” (Mark 10:17). Jesus threw the whole idea of human merit into the trash by saying, “No one is good — except God alone” (Mark 10:18). In criticizing the man’s question, Jesus began to cut away at the cultural, foundational ideas that undergirded it.
As long as men think they can attain goodness through human works, they are not ready to attain the only goodness that will ever bring eternal life. Only by renouncing their own goodness can a person obtain the gift of Christ’s goodness through faith. Jesus bluntly shot the man’s question down because it was hindering his approach to God. In effect, Jesus expressed a paradox: only by denying any merit do we gain merit.
Jesus next focused the man’s attention on the commandments of the Law. Here the man revealed the depth of his blindness. By claiming that he had kept all of the Law since he was a boy, he had missed the whole point of the Law!
A sincere Israelite who tried to keep the Law would soon realize that he could not possibly do it. His failure should lead him to throw himself upon the mercy of God. But the insidiousness of Pharisaism lay in the fact that it had diluted God’s law and made it humanly attainable. Such a heinous deception had captured this man’s mind.
In trying to reach this rich man, Jesus moved him from something hard to something even harder for him. After challenging him with the Law, Jesus then confronted him with the need to give away his wealth. Paradoxically, Jesus told the man that he had to give up all of his treasure if he wished to have treasure.
That idea also struck at the foundations of Jewish piety, which taught that charitable gifts, fasting, and prayer were the three best ways of pleasing God. The rich were thought to have heaven “in the bag” because throughout a lifetime they could dole out little token gifts from their great wealth. The Pharisees forbade anyone from giving away all of their wealth at one time because that would be throwing away salvation — or so they taught.
By asking the man to give away his wealth, Jesus was taking away the best hope for salvation that the man had, according to the thinking of his day. In essence, Jesus told the man that the only way he could get to heaven was to give away the exact thing that he thought would get him there. Give away all to gain all. What wise nonsense!
Many commentators have likely misunderstood Mark 10:21a, which says, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” It is often said that Jesus felt some special regard for this man. I don’t think that’s the case at all. Mark was simply telling us that Jesus looked at the man and then loved him in the full, biblical sense of the word.
Biblical love does not consist of some warm and fuzzy feeling toward someone else, but rather it is an act of self-giving for the benefit of another person. Jesus loved this man by revealing to him what was blocking his way to heaven. Paradoxically, Jesus’ love brought this man shock and sorrow. In Mark 10:22 we are told that “the man’s face fell,” which means that he was both shocked and appalled by what Jesus had said.
While Jesus was trying to reach through mental barriers to save this rich man, the disciples were standing beside him, taking it all in. Their heads were swimming with confusion and their hearts were filling with despair.
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
Jesus’ first statement hit the disciples like a ton of bricks: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23). In telling us that “the disciples were amazed,” Mark used a Greek verb that indicates they didn’t get over their astounded state quickly. Something shattering happened right in front of their eyes and yet defied belief. Jesus knew that his own disciples held the same erroneous beliefs about wealth that the rich man did!
Jesus then treated the disciples much as he did the rich man, by moving from something hard for them to accept to something even harder. Jesus had them off balance and then knocked them further off balance so that they might learn. The approach is counter-intuitive but very effective.
With a piece of exaggerated humor, Jesus took the biggest animal in Israel, the camel, and imagined it passing through the smallest opening, the eye of a needle. By implication, Jesus was saying that it is impossible for someone who trusts in riches to enter the kingdom of God.
The effect of Christ’s words was to bring his disciples to the point of despair. Mark wrote that the disciples were “even more amazed”; the Greek verb means “to be overwhelmed.” Jesus had knocked flat all their ideas about wealth. In despair, the dumbfounded disciples turned to one another and wondered how anyone could possibly be saved.
That exchange led to two more paradoxes. The first is that men must reach despair in order to find hope. The disciples had to abandon all hope in the methods of this world so that they might gain the only true hope. Jesus extended that hope to them with another paradox: with God the impossible becomes possible. Their hope did not lie in themselves but in him.
The entire sequence, including both the rich man and the disciples, expresses a profound paradox about wealth. Wealth seems to men of all ages to bring the greatest security, but that security is deceptive. By relying on wealth, they fail to seek the only security that really does exist, security in God. So, paradoxically, the greatest security brings the greatest peril.
Those who have everything stand in the greatest danger of ending life with nothing. Being overwhelmed by Christ’s words, the disciples reacted like the rich man. Yet, unlike him, they did not leave Jesus. That illustrates the vast gulf that lay between those who responded to Jesus and those who walked away from him.
After wiping away the thoughts that his disciples cherished so deeply, Jesus then began to build new ways of thinking. They must leave behind cultural patterns and ways of thought, which lead to dead ends of impossibility. They must instead trust in the Lord, with whom all things become possible.
The Last First
28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Quite understandably, Peter sought reassurance from Jesus. In reply, Jesus acknowledged that his disciples had given up both families and inheritances for his sake. As a result, they would win the grand prize. Paradoxically, they forsook all to receive even more in its place. Those who seem according to the standards of the world to have it made, those using the world’s patterns, will in fact be last in the age to come. By contrast, the disciples of Jesus, whom the religious establishment considered to be the last, will prove in the age to come to be the children of the Father, and therefore the first of all.
Paul puts it in another way in 1 Corinthians chapter 1. The world considers the cross foolishness, but the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom. The very thing the world considers laughable is the thing that God will use to save those who will put their faith in his Son. Paradoxically, through death (at the cross) comes life (for all who believe).
I hope that you can see how Jesus used paradoxes to get his disciples to think new thoughts about God. He knocked them off balance and brought them to the point of despair so that they might find the only true hope.
Becoming Childlike Adults in Christ
I want to apply this passage by asking you to rethink some things in a manner similar to the way Jesus taught his first disciples. In setting aside long-established ideas, we can become more like children for a little while, and more pliable in Christ’s hands. Use the following ideas to guide you:
1. One of our greatest needs is to develop Christ’s viewpoint on life’s complex issues. As you study the Scriptures, here are two suggestions:
Meditate the most on the verses you like the least.
Doesn’t that sound like fun? Such behavior would be paradoxical, and it would have a significant purpose. When God says something that you find most uncomfortable, that is probably the very time when the theological system in your head needs to be changed!
Look for situations in which Jesus behaves in a way that would feel embarrassing or very unnatural for you.
Remember how Jesus treated the unsaved rich man. He didn’t deal with him the way any contemporary Christian would. What can we learn from that? In teaching his disciples, Jesus first knocked them off balance and then knocked them totally down! How can we take advantage of this novel method in terms of teaching and learning in our own lives?
By carefully evaluating such unusual approaches, we can pick up profound insights about our own ways of doing things. Such situations certainly should lead us to wonder whether we derive our own patterns of behavior from our surrounding culture or from Jesus.
2. Things are not always what they seem to be. Wealth and accomplishment can deceive us by promising something they can’t deliver. Wealth promises security, but there is no lasting security except in the Lord.
Great or numerous accomplishments can deceive us into thinking that we are doing something of lasting value. But only those actions that serve Christ, his people, and his kingdom will truly endure and be rewarded.
Thousands of years ago, three pharaohs each erected a great pyramid outside of Cairo; each pyramid took over twenty years to build. Can you personally name a single one of these men? Can you imagine putting out such vast effort without even accomplishing lasting fame?
Where is your security based? Is it based in your bank account? Or in your good acts?
Will your busy actions stand the test of time?
3. Some of the things that the Lord calls on us to do bring us struggle, because our life experiences cry out, “That won’t work!” But the very essence of living by faith is doing things his way even when we can’t see what the consequences will be. The rich man considered Christ’s ideas nonsense. By contrast, the disciples were willing to follow him even when the road led them to despair.
4. What are your two greatest strengths, personally or spiritually? I want you to think of something concrete about yourself and even to write it down.
Are you reliable, loving, or intelligent? What do people value about you? Are you giving, articulate, honest or kind?
When I filled in those blanks, I put down knowledge first. A great deal of my life has focused on accumulating and teaching knowledge. But, you know there is something paradoxical about knowledge, because Jesus couldn’t teach some of the scribes anything. They already considered themselves so smart that they didn’t think there was anything that an untutored teacher from Galilee could tell them.
Here is the point: have you considered the seemingly absurd possibility that your greatest strengths may be your areas of greatest weakness in your walk with Christ?
What you do best may need some rethinking and readjustment. The purpose of that is not to do away with your strengths, but to keep them from becoming weaknesses.
As believers we need to be willing to open every door of our lives, including those areas that we consider totally settled. We need to re-evaluate even our greatest strengths so that Jesus can make us ever more effective for him.
A Final Word
As strange as it may sound, I hope I have helped you feel less certain about your beliefs, about yourself, and about how to live for Christ. If you feel a little more like a child, a little off balance, then this chapter has met its goal.
I always loved downhill skiing. I found it exhilarating to ski up to a steep place and look down. The thing that’s tough about it is that the way to ski a steep run is to lean downhill and begin to pick up speed. That doesn’t sound right, does it!
To go that fast is scary and seems like the last thing you would want to do. But — paradoxically — up to a certain point, the faster your skis go, the more control they can give you. And so, what feels like the worst thing you can do is actually the thing that can bring you the most stability and control.
So, if you feel a little off balance by what has been said, don’t fight it. Take your uncertainty and your new concerns right where a child should go — to the Father. Study his Word. Pray for renewed wisdom. What you will find is that Jesus will take your weakened convictions and rebuild them, just as he did for his first disciples.
Coming next . . .
In Chapter 10, Jesus must pause in his daunting journey to Jerusalem and correct disciples who are scrambling for personal power in a manner more suited to Herod’s palace than to their Lord’s trek to the cross.