Monday, January 19, 2009

A Model for Ministry

Throughout Mark’s Gospel is the witness of Jesus’ purposeful engagement with the rejected and the hopeless, and, in some cases, the hopelessly rejected. This was evident from the beginning when He called Galilean fishermen to be His disciples, and then spent the entire first day of ministry – as recorded in Mark’s Gospel – not only teaching in the synagogue but healing diseases and exorcising demonic spirits. He cleansed lepers with a touch. Healed paralytics with a word, and was available to sinners and society’s outcasts; making it clear that grace would not be restricted to only those who thought they were righteous. He made withered limbs whole. He calmed violent storms with a simple sentence. He raised the dead to life. He fed thousands from a sack lunch. He restored a maniac. One who had been beyond society’s ability to reform or rehabilitate, but not beyond the power of Jesus to redeem and transform.

I hope up have you noticed the common characteristics of those who came to Jesus. They were all helpless and/or hopeless, despised and/or desperate. They had expended all other options. Jesus was their last and only hope. The same is true today.

Most of Jesus' ministry occurred in Jewish territory. All of the events just mentioned happened during a period of time when Jesus was ministering in Galilee among the Jewish people. Understandably, the popularity of Christ and the resistance toward Him became substantial. Jesus and the Twelve were in need of a retreat, but the demands of ministry would not relent, nor would the opposition from the Pharisees. In order to find a little breathing space, Christ led His followers into the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon.

While in Gentile territory Christ healed the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman, a woman who had a desperate need and great faith. Her “mega” faith provideed a remarkable juxtaposition with the shallowness, resistance, rejection, and the spiritual pride that was so pervasive in Galilee. This Gentile woman was genuinely hungry for Christ and humble before the Lord; unlike many of His own people.

Departing from Sidon, Jesus traveled to Decapolis, which was another predominantly Gentile territory, and the place to which He had already sent the redeemed maniac. That is where we pick up the text, beginning in Mark 7:31:
And again, departing from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, he came unto the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the coasts of Decapolis. And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him. And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue; And looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. And straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain. And he charged them that they should tell no man: but the more he charged them, so much the more a great deal they published [it]; And were beyond measure astonished, saying, He hath done all things well: he maketh both the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak.
I find this to be a particularly beautiful section of Mark's Gospel because here Jesus is reaching beyond the lost sheep of the house of Israel, the covenant people, and He is reaching to Gentiles. Mark 7:24 - 8:13 all transpire in Gentile regions. Many commentators believe this was for as long as eight months, or one-fifth of His total ministry. This most certainly is a prophetic picture of God’s grace extended beyond the borders of Israel to all the nations of the world. This is truly a reason for the nations to be glad! The coming of Christ to Israel was never and end unto itself but only the means to the end of reaching the world.

Verses 31-37 are unique to Mark’s account. Matthew mentions Jesus ministering in this area (Matthew 15:29-31), but only Mark provides the detailed description of Christ healing the deaf and mute man. Typical of this book, Mark combines unique details with an economy of words (vv. 33-34) in describing the unusual process that Jesus employed to heal this man, and found within this remarkable interaction is a model for ministry that Christ’s churches should follow.

Empathy – v. 33

This man was in bondage to a severe physical handicap. Unable to hear; he could hardly talk, and it is highly probable that he could not read. It would have been difficult for him to ask questions, and providing explanations would not be any easier. I am unable to adequately imagine this man’s situation, but it most have seemed miserable and hopeless to him. Even today those who are deaf and mute are often stigmatized as being stupid and backward. They are forced to endure rudeness, impatience, and social awkwardness on a level that hearing and speaking people could never truly understand.

Yet, someone, or rather, a group of people, loved this man, because Mark tells us that as Jesus entered Decapolis “they” brought to Him a man who was deaf, and “they” begged Jesus to lay His hand on him.

That is exactly what Jesus did. “And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue.” Never did Christ shrink back from touching sinful humanity! Beginning with His incarnation, when the King of Heaven condescended to the form of a servant by being born in the likeness of men. Thus, being found in human form, He further humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the Cross. From then, throughout His ministry, and still today the Lord Jesus Christ is willing to touch sinful man. Of course, the one Christ touches never stays the same.

Jesus could have healed this deaf man with a word. On several occasions Christ did just that, but Jesus touched this man whose physical disabilities had isolated him from most of society. Christ touched him because reaching out is the instinct of a loving heart, and because a touch communicates empathy. Jesus couldn’t verbally communicate with this man, so He spoke to him in a way the man could understand. He used sign language, and He touched him.

True compassion is more than emotion it is action. The hands-on touch is essential if a church is to be healthy. Churches must financially support it's own work and the work of missionaries, but we cannot touch by proxy. The question for us is have we been reaching out to others? Have we been willing to be uncomfortable to help others? Do we ever run the danger of getting dirty in the process?

Communion – v. 34a

“And looking up to heaven…” This heavenward glance expressed two things. First, it is a visible means of communicating to the deaf man that God was the source of his healing; it was not magic but God’s grace that was responsible for this miracle. Second, it expressed the need for communion with the Father in order for His work to be accomplished.

Between God the Father and God the Son there exists a divine unity and communion. Their unity is the foundation of their perfect communion, and their communion is the manifestation of their indescribable unity. Therefore we read that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God” – that is communion; then we read, “and the Word was God” – that is unity. That was in eternity past, before the Word was made flesh, but the same unity and communion existed after the incarnation for we hear Jesus assert, “I and my Father are one” – that is unity, and we also hear Him utter, “he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him” – that’s communion.

We are not able to have the level of unity and communion that exists between the Father and the Son. Indeed, our unity is with the Son through whom we have communion with the Father, and herein is the lesson. Jesus was in constant communion with the Father. There were times of private prayer, but He was always in prayer. Even in the midst of intense, seemingly unending, and a very “hands-on” ministry Jesus was found “looking up to heaven.”

In his commentary on this passage the Scotsman Alexander Maclaren wrote:
The heavenward look draws new strength from the source of all our might. In our work, dear brethren…what we do depends largely on what we are, and what we are depends on what we receive, and what we receive depends on the depth and constancy of our communion with God…It is habitual communion with Christ that alone will give the persistency that makes systematic, continuous efforts for Him possible, and yet will keep systematic work from degenerating, as it ever tends to do, into mechanical work.
In other words, be careful that you're not so busy that the heavenly look becomes little more than a nervous nod.

The most troubling malady affecting Christians and churches today is not worldliness it is prayerlessness. Of course, worldliness is a natural byproduct of prayerlessness. Do not imagine that your service to God is more important that your communion with Him, and understand that interrupted communion leads to unfruitful service.

Compassion – v. 34b

“And looking up to heaven, he sighed…” What is the meaning of Jesus’ sigh? Was He just tired from the ministry? Did this particular miracle wear Him down? It’s true that in His humanity the Lord certainly experienced weariness as any man does, but fatigue is not the cause of this sigh. Jesus had performed many miracles in the past without sighing, including raising some from the dead. No, this was not a sigh of exhaustion. This was the sigh of God incarnate for His needy creation. This is an expression of the deep sorrow and anger the Lord felt at the ravages of sin on the lives of men. This sigh of Jesus was a breath of compassion for men who are not only physically afflicted but who are spiritually dead.

The emotions of Christ are regularly displayed in Mark’s Gospel, and, as one would expect, Jesus was always in control of His emotions not controlled by them. Mark records Christ’s grief at the hardness of men’s hearts, His marveling over unbelief and belief alike, His being moved with compassion for an outcast leper and a hungry multitude, His sighing deeply in His spirit when confronted with prejudiced hostility by faithless men who constantly asked for signs from heaven while ignoring those very signs. We witness His heaviness of heart in Gethsemane on the night before His crucifixion as the weight of the coming cross begins to crash down on Him. Put together we have the portrait of the God-Man who cared and felt deeply for others.

On every church pew on every Sunday there sits a heartache. It may not be known by any or all in attendance, but it is there and it is real. Behind every heartache is the menace of sin, which is either the direct or indirect cause for all Creation’s suffering. Those of us who desire to minister as did Christ must share in His compassion for a hurting humanity. To quote Maclaren once again:
Tell me the depth of a Christian man’s compassion, and I will tell you the measure of his fruitfulness.
The prophet Jeremiah was so burdened over the sins of his people, and he so deeply cared for them that he said, “Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jeremiah 9:1) He longed for the relief brought by a flood of tears.
When churches sigh like Christ, in genuine compassion, power comes to the hurting.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:
Matthew 5:4“Blessed [are] they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.”
Matthew 5:7“Blessed [are] the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.”

Those who mourn over their sins and the sins of the world, those who have a merciful, compassionate spirit are approved by God. Are we compassionate people? Have we ever wept over the physically hurting and the spiritually dead? Have we wept over broken relationships? Do we weep because of the other person’s pain or only because of our own? If we are lacking here, we need to pray for help.

The Word – v. 34c

Christ said “Be opened”, “Ephphatha” in Aramaic. His command was delivered to deaf ears, but He knew that it would be heard. The Word of God is powerful. The Word of God, and His Word alone, is able to break through deaf ears, whether they be physically deaf or spiritually deaf, and cause them to hear. This is the key to victory. We often sing that Faith is the Victory that overcomes the world and this is true. Faith in what? Not faith in faith. Not faith in rituals. Faith in Christ, and specifically faith in Christ as He has revealed Himself in His word.

This is what is necessary for our churches to reach our world: an empathetic touch upon the hurting, an upward look of prayer, a heartfelt sigh of compassion, and a bold pronouncement of the Gospel. The healing will come to our homes, churches, neighborhoods, and our world.

1 comment:

Word Wonder said...

Right on, Brother. Thanks for the encouragement in the work of the Lord. I had never seen the Gentile ministry in quite that light before, or considered the extent of it. Thank you. Keep you hand to the plow.

By His Grace,
Josh