Books: The Path to the Cross — Chapter 10

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BIBLICAL CONCEPTS PRESS

 

 

 

 

Available at Amazon.com

 

 Chapter 10

A Big Difference

Jesus commends serving others

Years ago I made a large astronomical telescope, which provided me with hours of fun. Whenever I set up my telescope in the front yard, it took about fifteen minutes to draw a crowd. When people walk up, they see a large cylinder pointed up toward the sky. Invariably, someone will go around behind the telescope, crouch down, and look up through the bottom, expecting to catch a glimpse of the heavens. It shocks them to realize that they can’t see a thing!

Anyone who grows up in America develops a general concept of how telescopes work. Through limited experience they develop the idea that you use every telescope by looking in one straight line through the optics to the target. That holds true for most telescopes, but not for mine.

The eyepiece on my telescope is on the side, near one end of the tube. To observe with me, people have to give up their time-honored ideas about how telescopes work. They must use my telescope according to its special — Newtonian reflector — design.

Sometimes the way we look at things makes a big difference indeed. I’m personally convinced that our principle of looking at things in culturally conditioned ways applies to the way we see the church and its leaders. Having grown up in America, the great majority of us have become accustomed to thinking of the church as working much like a corporation. As we will see, that is quite different from the way Jesus Christ designed his church to work.

As a direct result of adopting corporate culture, some churches don’t function as they should. Some church leaders don’t follow the role that Christ intended; they too are caught up in the cultural pattern. That makes a big difference.

One of the most critical Gospel passages on church leadership comes from Mark 10. This passage also illustrates why the authors of the Gospels sometimes put stories side by side. At first glance, many of these stories may seem unrelated, but further study will reveal a strong connection. Such is the case in Mark 10.

Mark’s account flows through three stages of thought. In the first stage the focus is on serving self, strictly catering to one’s pleasures. The second stage stresses serving other people, placing other people’s interests ahead of your own. The final stage involves serving God, putting his kingdom above all else.

A Faulty Design

35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”
38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
39 “We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
(Mark 10:35–40)

Those events probably took place on the east side of the Jordan River while Jesus and his disciples journeyed south toward Jerusalem. It may have been during a brief rest stop that James and John made their play for power.

They began with one of the most open-ended requests in the history of the world: “We want you to do for us whatever we ask” (Mark 10:35, italics added). When they got down to specifics, they were asking for the number two and number three positions in the kingdom of God. They wanted to be the second and third most powerful people in all eternity.

The other Gospels inform us that, at that point, James and John still thought Jesus would set up the millennial kingdom very soon. They believed that the trip to Jerusalem would conclude with his glorious reign. I really don’t know why they expected that, because Jesus told them repeatedly what would actually happen. He was going to Jerusalem to die. From their request, we can plainly see that his plans did not fit into theirs.

Some days before the approach by James and John, the disciples had argued vehemently among themselves (Mark 9:33–34). Jesus asked them what they had argued about, but none of them wanted to tell him. They were ashamed to admit that they had fought over who was the greatest among them.

Their self-interest had not gone away. That’s why James and John reasserted their claims. They were trying to sneak in front of the other ten by asking Jesus for those privileges first. Such tactics would have been logical, had they been serving in the court of King Herod, that master of political intrigue. That’s the way the game is played in this world’s councils of power. But James and John had totally misunderstood the design of Christ’s kingdom.

In responding to James and John, Jesus tried in several ways to point them in the opposite direction. First he warns them that they don’t know what they are asking (Mark 10:38a). And so, Christ’s question likely means, “You can’t drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with, can you?” (Mark 10:38).

To drink someone’s cup means to share his fate, in this case, death on a Roman cross. To be baptized means to be overwhelmed or engulfed, in this case by God’s wrath against sin that would engulf the Son of God. But James and John demonstrated their lack of spiritual insight and the keenness of their self-interest by ignoring the rebuff Jesus had given them. They said, “We can.” They were willing to do whatever was necessary to gain supreme power!

Jesus then predicted that they would experience part of his suffering. (In A.D. 44, James was martyred by Herod Agrippa. John was ultimately banished to the island of Patmos in the Mediterranean, from which he wrote Revelation.)

Next, Jesus flatly denied the two brothers’ request by saying that those places of honor “belong to those for whom they have been prepared” (Mark 10:40). In my view, Jesus didn’t have anyone specific in mind; he was speaking of a certain kind of person. It would soon become obvious that James and John did not fit the description!

An Astonishing Design

41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
(Mark 10:41–45)

The two brothers’ power politics soon blew up in their faces. The other status-seekers learned what had happened and became “indignant” with the two. This word means to be angry at impropriety.

In trying to sneak in ahead of all the others, James and John hadn’t played by the rules. The other ten apostles actually wanted the same thing James and John did, but they didn’t get off the starting blocks quite as quickly. So, in the midst of his solemn journey to Jerusalem, where he was to suffer for humanity, Christ had to straighten out the twelve men in whom he had invested the most.

Jesus cut straight to the heart of their problem. They had totally misunderstood his design for the relationships among his followers. They had drawn their model for behavior from the surrounding pagan world. The rulers of the Gentiles “lord it over them”; the Greek verb has the clear nuance of self-interest.

The Herods and Caesars did not rule in the interest of those being governed, but solely for their own purposes. Their kingdoms functioned for maximum personal benefit. In the Roman world the high officials “exercise authority” over others, again with the implication of self-interest and exploitation. The whole power structure of the Gentile world served the interests of the people at the top, at the expense of the people on the bottom.

We should understand that, because we live in a world just like it. Like James and John, we have all grown accustomed to it and think that such power structures are normal. Within their cultural context, the request of James and John made complete sense, but they had drawn their model for the followers of Christ from their culture.

In response to that viewpoint, Jesus uttered four of the most important words in the New Testament: “Not so with you” (Mark 10:43). With this firm and simple statement, Jesus wiped the top-down model — power exercised for self-interest — right off the blackboard. Those who follow Jesus must adopt a totally different design.

Jesus then described what it takes to be great as a follower of Christ (Mark 10:43–44). To be great involves voluntary service on behalf of others, which is the underlying meaning of the Greek noun translated “servant.” To be first in the body of Christ, as James and John wanted to be, requires even more. Such a person must be the “slave” of all. The Greek noun refers to a person who has completely subjected his own interests to the interests of another.

Instead of drawing their model from the world, the disciples should have watched Jesus, who put his own interests aside. Christ voluntarily set aside the privileges of heaven to come to our world and share our struggle. Paul tells us that Jesus condescended to come in the very form of a slave (Phil. 2:7). God was trying to teach us something by the way that his Son came into the world. His message to us was totally counter-cultural and goes against the designs that we’ve all grown so accustomed to. But among us Jesus wants a different design, and leaders are to function there in a completely different way.

A Missed Opportunity

Now I want to give you a brief exposition of what is not written in the biblical text at this point. Mark should happily have reported that James and John repented of their extreme self-interest and bad attitude. But we don’t read that, do we? They appear unaffected by what Jesus had said.

And what would you expect Jesus to have done, in light of their lack of response? We might guess that Jesus would rebuke them and tell them that he was going to make them act like servants. He had the power to make them act any way he wanted. Jesus had both the power and the right to do that, but he knew that would be a violation of the very principles he was trying to teach them. It would have violated his design for those who follow him.

The church does not function by its leaders’ forcing others to do what they are supposed to do. Jesus didn’t work that way, either. He did exactly what he wanted future Christian leaders to do: after teaching others by word, he taught them by personal example.

An Incredible Request Granted

46 Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
48 Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
49 Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”
So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.”
50 Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.
51 “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.
The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”
52 “Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.
(Mark 10:46–52)

After teaching his disciples in a private setting, Jesus modeled for them in a public setting. Because Jesus was near Jericho, a large crowd had gathered around him. As the crowd walked along the road with Christ, suddenly one of Israel’s many blind men cried out. Most blind men probably would have welcomed a crowd as an opportunity to receive alms, but Bartimaeus was not like the others. He had heard that Jesus of Nazareth was coming (Mark 10:47).

Bartimaeus began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Think carefully; Bartimaeus was told that “Jesus of Nazareth” was coming. Nazareth is not the city of David; that distinction belongs to Bethlehem. So, Bartimaeus must have known more about Jesus than the average blind man did. He apparently understood who Jesus was and what he had come to do (“have mercy”).

Bartimaeus didn’t ask Jesus for position or power, but for something in keeping with the design and purpose of Christ’s mission. James and John had requested something in opposition to Christ’s mission, and they had been denied. Jesus didn’t come to hand out seats of power, but to show the mercy of God.

For his outcry, Bartimaeus received nothing but grief. The crowd, the disciples, and — I would be willing to guarantee you — the Twelve joined together to rebuke the man. In effect, they said: “Shut up! Keep quiet. The Great Man doesn’t have time to fool around with the likes of you. Don’t you know he’s going to Jerusalem to do something important?”

They considered it improper for a blind man to halt Jesus on his holy mission. But Bartimaeus understood the design of Christ’s life far better than the multitude or the disciples did. He simply cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:48).

At this, Jesus stopped dead in his tracks, and the whole multitude must have gradually ground to a halt. The Son of God, on his way to atone for the sins of the world, paused to meet the needs of one blind beggar. By his example, Jesus showed that he came to serve and not to be served.

Christ instructed those around him to call the blind man. Then the mood of the entire group changed, and the people began to encourage the blind man. When Jesus called him, Bartimaeus demonstrated all of the spiritual insight and faith that James and John had previously lacked. He threw his cloak aside and quickly approached Christ to make his request. In a matter of seconds, his eyesight was restored.

Consider what this man had done even before he approached Jesus. He had thrown his cloak aside! It gets cold in the Jericho valley at night, and he undoubtedly would have needed that cloak to survive. The poor often had to depend on such garments for shelter, because they couldn’t afford a house. In my opinion, Bartimaeus threw his cloak aside because he knew that in a few moments he would be able to find it with no difficulty. He believed that Jesus would grant his request.

Consider too why Bartimaeus wanted to see. He didn’t use the gift for his own interests. He immediately began to follow Jesus with his newfound eyesight. He wanted to use it to serve God and not just himself. The other Gospels tell us that he gave praise to God along the way to Jerusalem.

A Backward Glance

By placing these two incidents side-by-side, Mark made his point powerfully. The section begins with two men who were serving themselves. Jesus rebuked them and taught that anyone who wants to become great among his followers must put the interests of others ahead of his own. Jesus then modeled this principle, with the result that men praised God. Selfish interest leads to quarreling and bickering, but serving others leads to the glory of God.

James and John failed to understand the design of relationships among the followers of Jesus Christ. They lacked spiritual insight and drew their model from the world. By contrast, Bartimaeus understood what Jesus had come to do and tailored his request to fit that. As a result, Bartimaeus came away a big winner. It makes a big difference to follow the design that Jesus has revealed.

Finally, I think these incidents amply demonstrate how leaders ought to function within the body of Christ. Not only should they set aside any interest in power and status, but they should also realize that they will not accomplish Christ’s goals by commanding and controlling others. Jesus taught first by word and then by the model of his own life. He expects leaders in the body of Christ to follow the same pattern.

Greatness in the Family of God

What Jesus taught his disciples applies to everyone, not just leaders. Use the following ideas to evaluate your own life:

1. Climbing to some pinnacle of power is the sole pursuit of many in our culture. But Jesus firmly rejected power-seeking as a relational model among his followers.

Are you involved in the great power game advocated by this world? In what settings?

If so, have you brought those values modeled by James and John into the church or into your circle of Christian relationships?

2. Jesus did not say that a Christian must reject a position of great authority within the power structures set up by this world. Indeed, a Christian general in the Army or CEO in a company could have a great influence for Christ. But . . .

How would a Christian’s leadership in a secular setting be influenced by the idea of serving others rather than oneself?

In a secular setting, how might a Christian’s ambition and efforts to rise above others be affected by the values Jesus taught his disciples?

3. Above all, the church must honor the leadership design that Jesus taught his disciples.

To what extent does your church or Christian group function according to the design Jesus intended?

A Final Word

A problem once developed deep under Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs. This granite giant houses the North American Air Defense Command and contains huge electronic display screens that signal the onset of any foreign military threat. One morning, a screen lit up suddenly, indicating that two submarine-launched ballistic missiles were headed for the east coast — Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, or some other major city might only have a few minutes to live.

Signals immediately went out to American defense forces all over the world. Our bomber forces launched their armed flights to retaliate. At about that time, the attack signal vanished from the screen. It disappeared as quickly as it had come.

Later, military technicians discovered that within the computer a forty-nine-cent part had malfunctioned and reported an attack when, in fact, there had been none. That tiny part nearly changed world history.

What we need, for the church to function as Christ designed it, is a small but crucial change in each of our hearts. I think it boils down to a willingness to do things his way, not ours.

 Coming next . . .

In Chapter 11, we learn how Jesus dealt with enormous pressure during a trial that was awash in Roman politics.

Books: The Path to the Cross — Chapter 9

Front Cover

 

 

BIBLICAL CONCEPTS PRESS

 

 

 

 

Available at Amazon.com

 

Chapter 9

Wise Nonsense

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.
(Mark 10:17–22)

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.

Possible Impossibilities

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.”
(Mark 10:23–27)

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.”
(Mark 10:28-31)

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.

Books: The Path to the Cross — Chapter 8

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BIBLICAL CONCEPTS PRESS

 

 

 

 

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 Chapter 8

What’s in it for me?

Jesus models loving others

In the dark and dreary years of the Great Depression, Kitty McCulloch was known as a generous person. As hunger stalked the land, Kitty and her husband often didn’t know for sure about their next week’s food, yet a steady stream of hungry men found their back door to ask for a hot meal. And Kitty always gave it to them.

An especially ragged man came near Christmastime one year. Kitty, feeling great pity for him, gave the man one of her husband’s few suits. Though she didn’t know it for many years, her house had been marked as a message to other needy people that here was a person who cared.

We could define biblical love as a spontaneous desire moving a person to self-giving for the benefit of another. Kitty McCulloch exemplified that kind of love by meeting the needs of others, even when her own resources looked terribly thin.

Jesus Christ modeled such love more than anyone else. He took great personal risks to teach and demonstrate real caring for others. That sets him in stark contrast to the message our modern world gives to each of us. Culturally, we are all trained to ask ourselves, “What’s in it for me?”

Jesus faced the very same attitude when he encountered the religious leaders of Israel. On one particular occasion, he confronted them with the ugly truth about their selfish way of living.

Caring About Others

1 One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. 2 There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. 3 Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” 4 But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way.
5 Then he asked them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” 6 And they had nothing to say.
(Luke 14:1–6)

As Jesus traveled south through Perea on his way to Jerusalem, he was invited to dine with a leading Pharisee, probably a member of the Sanhedrin. This banquet took place on the Sabbath, the trickiest day of the week. If God had made the Sabbath holy, the Pharisees had made it burdensome with the dense web of legislation they had created to control Sabbath behavior.

Pharisaic theology called on people to care for others, but their contemporaries considered them uncaring to a fault. They generally turned a blind eye toward the poor, the maimed, and the needy among their people.

One story from rabbinic literature should illustrate the issue quite well. A Pharisee once encountered a woman drowning in a pond. She died while he looked on without making any effort to help. He feared that if he touched her, then he might become ceremonially unclean.

You never can tell about a drowning woman. She might be having her monthly menstrual cycle, thus rendering anyone who touched her ceremonially unclean. That might affect the Pharisee’s income for a few days while he remedied his defilement. So, to avoid such terrible inconvenience, he simply let her drown. (I’m writing with sarcasm!)

We know that Jesus had a hostile audience because of the language used by Luke. He says that Jesus was being “carefully watched” (Luke 14:1), and this translates a verb that means to lie in wait to ambush someone. Beneath the external hospitality of this man lay the treacherous hook of a trap.

The Pharisees earnestly hoped that Jesus would make a big enough mistake so that he could be eliminated once and for all. The Pharisees and scribes had the callousness to use a human being to bait the hook. How else can we account for the fact that a man with a debilitating disease would show up for Sabbath lunch with a member of the Sanhedrin? He was planted there! The scribes and Pharisees were counting on Jesus’ feeling compassion toward this man in spite of the dangerous context.

The Law of Moses permitted miracles to be worked on the Sabbath. However, the super-religious crowd felt that such miracles smacked of working on the Sabbath day, which they abhorred — unless it served their own interests! These men had no concern for this sick individual; he was simply there as a tool to finesse a miracle out of Jesus. Sitting among the guests were scribes who knew every nook and cranny of the Law of Moses as well as the man-made rules that had been added.

Before working the expected miracle, Jesus asked the assembled theologians for a theological opinion about helping others: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” (Luke 14:3). Perhaps fearing the Lord’s well-known abilities, these leaders kept silent.

Jesus then healed the sick man in spite of the grave personal risk he was taking in doing so. He knew they would slander him as someone who had profaned the Sabbath. But such considerations never stopped Jesus; he cared for people even when there was a cost involved.

After sending the healed man away, Jesus confronted the religious leaders with the inconsistency between their own behavior and their super-strict Sabbath rules. Those men could not deny his charge that any one of them would do whatever work was necessary to save his son or his ox on the Sabbath day (Luke 14:5–6).

The Pharisees would gladly do the very thing they were condemning Jesus for, if their own interests would be served by such action. A Pharisee would not necessarily save his own son out of love. Their culture had no such thing as Social Security, and a man’s sons could be depended upon to support him in his elder years.

I think a better translation of Luke 14:6 would be, “they could make no reply to this.” Jesus had them, and they knew it. The hunted one had unexpectedly become the hunter!

The Basis for Caring

7 When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: 8“When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. 9 If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. 10But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. 11For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
(Luke 14:7–11)

To understand this parable, notice first that the moral is expressed in Luke 14:11: “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The whole parable drives toward this truth.

Second, observe that the word “but” at the beginning of Luke 14:10 divides the parable into two contrasting halves. Jesus firmly rejected self-exalting behavior in the first half, while he affirmed humility in the second half.

Jesus based the parable on his own observations of guests taking their places at the table. The Jewish culture used a very strict pecking order to determine seating assignments at such banquets. Even in the ranks of the Pharisees some had taken stricter vows than others, and so earned the right to a seat of higher honor. To give a banquet like that, with a large number of guests arriving at slightly different times, could involve a tremendous amount of shuffling around.

Jesus poked fun at this self-serving game of musical chairs. The whole system was driven by a desire to say to others, “See how important I am!” Jesus pointedly reminded them that such self-interested behavior could ultimately result in humiliation if a more important guest arrived. In fact, the important people in that society usually did come late so that they could be widely noticed.

In the second half of the parable, Jesus threw social custom to the wind by urging the guests to take the lowest seat upon their arrival. In taking the usual approach, the guest assigns himself the honor, while the method Jesus described would involve the host giving the guest an honor. With his story Jesus said that if you deserve exaltation, let it come from others and not from yourself (applying Prov. 27:2).

Jesus capped off the parable with the principle, “he who humbles himself will be exalted.” By whom? God. Jesus customarily used the passive voice to express God’s actions, as that was considered preferable to the frequent mention of his name. God is also the one who will humble the person who exalts himself.

Unfortunately, you seldom meet a Christian who aspires to be “humble.” This word conjures up an image of a person who is so self-effacing that they will hardly even look you in the eye. They feel bad about themselves and are so shy that they will never talk to anybody.

But that picture bears no resemblance at all to the biblical meaning of humility. Jesus was a humble person, in the biblical sense of the word, yet he never acted in any of those ways. Humility is not denying our own value, but involves granting value to others.

Giving to Others

12 Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
(Luke 14:12–14)

A high official like the Sanhedrin leader would have held banquets quite regularly, and invariably such a person would have invited members of his own social class. Strong taboos held the social classes apart from one another.

In my opinion, Jesus was not telling the Pharisees — and by application, he is not telling us — that they had to invite someone who was poor, crippled, lame, or blind every time they held a dinner.

His real point was that they never showed any concern for such people because of their uncaring attitude. Jesus simply used the example of a banquet because he was sitting at one. It served to illustrate the broader problem.

It is amusing that Jesus mentioned “rich neighbors” (Luke 14:12), because that captured the Pharisaic mentality. A Pharisee might well have both rich and poor neighbors, but only the rich neighbor was invited to banquets. Only a rich neighbor could pay the Pharisee back by responding in kind.

In this subtle way Jesus pointed out the inability of the Pharisees to give to others of a lower station than themselves. He was asserting that their whole life revolved around what would ultimately flow back to them in the way of honor, repayment, or social status. Like some members of our own society, the Pharisees were constantly calculating: “What’s in it for me?”

In the place of their intense self-concern, Jesus exhorted the Pharisees and scribes to meet the needs of others, even if they had to wait until the resurrection of the righteous to receive their repayment. To act that way requires a very farsighted view of life. It won’t pay off in the short run. Instead, you have to trust God to reward behavior that pleases him.

Caring About Ourselves

I am not saying that it is wrong to care about yourself. That would simply solve one problem by creating another one!

Caring about ourselves is fundamental to spiritual, emotional, and physical health. What the Pharisees did not have, and what Jesus was seeking to give them, was a healthy allocation of concern for others in addition to their concern for themselves.

Unfortunately, Christians sometimes overreact to the presence of sin. They see self-concern as simply another manifestation of their sin. Yet each of us is made in the image of God and we should value ourselves accordingly! It is not more spiritual to put a low value on what God values highly.

Increasing Our Concern for Others

Use the following applicational ideas to apply the truth that Jesus taught.

1. In our hurried world, the clock seems to work against us as we try to care for others. The urgent can become the enemy of the important. How do you see yourself, in terms of caring for others?

Hiding from them

Overcommitted to them

Involved with them to a reasonable degree

It’s too easy to hide from people’s needs by simply avoiding venues in which we know that their needs will be revealed. Such behavior can betray that we would rather not know about the needs of other people. On the other hand, if we overcommit to meeting the needs of others, then we may be overlooking other priorities that God has given to each one of us.

2. Jesus made it quite clear that we should have a healthy concern for the value and needs of others.

How do you cope with social status and the needs of others in your own life?

Do you find yourself quite conscious of someone else’s social class, income, education, and so on?

A friend of mine told me a disturbing story about a prestigious Christian school. After many years of working there, a man was promoted to a higher level, but he still had friends among his former associates after the promotion. He was soon informed that he could not socialize with those (lower) people anymore! They didn’t share his status, so they couldn’t share his presence, either! Jesus spoke directly against that kind of thinking.

Do you find it difficult to roll up your sleeves and go to work in some thankless but vital job?

Every church has vital jobs that go begging because Christians aspire to something “higher.” Certainly all of us enjoy recognition, but Jesus said we should be willing to forego immediate rewards and recognition and to wait, if necessary, to be rewarded in eternity. After gaining some experience in the ministry, I started looking for people who willingly take such thankless jobs simply because they love Christ. Those are the people I would recommend for positions of leadership.

3. One estimate of our concern for others is whether we can give to them (time, money, a listening ear) without any thought of receiving any return.

When was the last time you gave something to someone who could never repay you?

When was the last time you gave a gift without concern for what had been or would be given to you by the other person?

4. Remember that the person who most needs your caring, serving, and giving may live within your own home. Or they may live next door.

A Final Word

Edith Evans found someone nearby to serve. She was cruising across the Atlantic, bound for New York from Liverpool on one of the most famous ships of history, the Titanic.

Before the Titanic sailed, one of the stewards had told a passenger that not even God could sink the ship, a view which most people aboard had believed as well.

But an iceberg struck the Titanic and ripped away part of the ship’s bottom. The ship began to sink quickly by the bow while the crew attempted to lower the lifeboats. However, over sixteen hundred people had no lifeboat, because the unsinkable ship had set sail without its full number of lifeboats!

Edith Evans and Mrs. John M. Brown showed up at the railing just as the last boat was about to be lowered from the sinking ship. Apart from that boat there was no hope; the dark freezing waters below would kill a person in minutes.

Only one seat remained when the two women got to the rail, and the boat was to be lowered as soon as it was filled. Edith turned to Mrs. Brown and said: “You go first. You have children at home.” Edith quickly pushed her over the rail and into the boat just as the deck officer shouted, “Lower away!”

Edith Evans gave up what I would call the seat of honor — the last seat. She had put the young mother’s needs ahead of her own.

Jesus was certainly like that. He gave his life for our sins, not because we deserved it or because we could ever repay him, but because he loved us that much. Those who follow him have a lot to live up to.

 Coming next . . .

In Chapter 9, Jesus deals with an issue that plagues every disciple: what is already settled in the disciples’ minds can stand in the way of what Jesus wants them to learn. How does he get past that barrier?