Sunday, March 22, 2009

Jesus & Divorce

“In our parents' generation, marriage was still the most powerful social force. In ours, it was divorce. My 44-year-old classmates and I have watched divorce morph from something shocking, even shameful, into a routine fact of American life.” So wrote David J. Jefferson in his article The Divorce Generation Grows Up which was the cover story for Newsweek magazine in the issue dated April 21, 2008. The article is a candid look at the lingering effects of the divorce revolution as experienced in Jefferson's own 1982 graduating class at Grant High School in California's San Fernando Valley. The article lists the up to date and discouraging divorce statistics. Each year, about 1 million children watch their parents split; triple the number of the '50s. These children are twice as likely as their peers to get divorced themselves and more likely to have mental-health problems…the divorce rate has increased to 3.6 per 1,000…while marriage has sharply decreased to 7.3 per 1,000 people in 2006.

Here is another disturbing statistic, this time from the June 10, 2006 edition of World magazine in an article written by Jamie Dean: During a 10-month period in 2005, an estimated 1.8 million couples got married in the United States. During the same period, nearly 800,000 couples divorced.

While the number of marriages is decreasing, divorces are maintaining a relatively high percentage, and the number of opposite-sex couples (a sign of the times is that we must make that distinction) is at an all time high. According to a July 28, 2008 USAToday article, the number of opposite-sex couples who lived together was less than a million just 30 years ago, but in 2007 that number was 6.4 million. Cohabiting couples now make up almost 10% of all opposite-sex U.S. couples, married and unmarried.

Listen again to what David Jefferson, a man who is only 44 years old, wrote:
“I have watched divorce morph from something shocking, even shameful, into a routine fact of American life.”

It’s a depressing statement. It’s a true statement, and the numbers back up his assertion. Sadly, his observation is not only true of “secular” couples, but it’s also true of those who would identify themselves as Christians. Within a generation, Christianity in general has watched as divorce morphed from something shocking and shameful into a routine fact of American Christian life. We refer to ourselves as the people who stand for traditional, Biblical marriage, and by this we have come to mean marriage between a man and a woman as opposed to same-gender marriage. Obviously, I completely agree that marriage is meant to be between one man and one woman, but let us not lightly pass over the fact that the greatest enemy of marriage is divorce not homosexual matrimony.

If that statement is shocking to you, it is probably because all of us have experienced divorce on some level. Either you’ve walked through one and are now single or remarried, or your parents, or some other loved one, have been divorced. It has become so frequent as to seem, well, routine.


The numbers do not tell the whole story, however. The mere mention of the word carries a huge weight of sorrow and loss. No matter how one looks at divorce it is a tragic disappointment, and it causes anger, regret, and guilt for all involved. Not many things are more painful than divorce. It’s a wound that cuts deep. Emotionally, it is more heart-wrenching than the death of a spouse. Death is usually
clean pain. Divorce is usually dirty pain. In other words, the enormous loss of a spouse in death is compounded in divorce by the ugliness of sin and moral outrage at being wronged.

Of course, there are many who would disagree with my comments. While they are not happy with the failure or their marriage, they are happy to be done with it, and there has arisen an industry that helps the recently divorced to celebrate the dissolution of their marriage. One example is Los Angeles entrepreneur Christine Gallagher who has established a business called "The Divorce Party Planner", and written a book of the same name, to meet the growing demand for post-divorce celebrations.


This cannot be a good thing.


CNN.com ran a story by Elizabeth Bougerol which covered this growing, and in my opinion troubling, trend. It’s troubling; not because of the celebrations per se, but because of what is being celebrated. Gallagher is quoted in the article as saying: “[Divorce is] part of life, and yet it's the only major event for which we have no ritual. A celebration communicates that divorce is OK -- life affirming, even.”

The reason this “major event” has no celebration ritual is because
it has never before been viewed as a celebratory occasion. The dissolution of what was supposed to be a life-long relationship should be mourned, not exalted like the wedding itself. The above quote reveals this age's mood regarding divorce: “it is OK --life affirming, even.”

Actually it is neither.

What does a divorce celebration look like. According to the CNN.com article, one size doesn't fit all. Bougerol writes the following: “Burning is big,” says Gallagher, who's seen everything from wedding dresses to a husband's trophy deer head go up in flames at divorce celebrations organized by her event-planning outfit. The parties, two or three per month, serve up signature cocktails with names like the “So Long” and the “Sucker”, split themed soundtracks (“Hit the Road, Jack” and “I Will Survive” are popular) and dartboards adorned with the ex's face.

This sounds very cathartic, but not very helpful.


I think it’s important for me to state that I am not against divorced people, but I am against divorce, people! I’m against a cultural mindset that views divorce as just another bump along the road of life; as just another event that should be celebrated. “Hey, thanks for coming to our wedding. If it doesn't work out, I'll be sure to invite you to the divorce soiree.”

I am against divorce, but I for marriage!

We’ve rehearsed the sad stats, and we’ve heard from pop culture.
What does Jesus have to say about divorce? We are given a clear answer from the Lord in Mark 10:1-12. As the passage begins, Jesus has moved from Galilee to the Trans-Jordan, drawing ever nearer to Jerusalem and the cross that awaits Him there. As always, along the road He taught His disciples. As always, the Pharisees are on the Lord’s heels, ostensibly to learn from Him but actually to tempt Him. The word translated “tempting” in Mark 10:2 is first used by Mark in Mark 1:13. These men had no desire to learn from Jesus. Their only motivation for asking Jesus questions was to try and incriminate Him. It was also no coincidence that the Pharisees waited until Jesus returned to the territory of Herod Antipas before asking Him about divorce and remarriage. After all, John the Baptist’s position on that subject got him beheaded (Mark 6:14-29).

But there was more than politics involved in their trick question, because divorce was a very controversial subject among the Jewish rabbis. In that day there were two conflicting views on divorce, and which view one espoused depended on how one interpreted the phrase
“some uncleanness” from Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Adherents to the liberal school of Rabbi Hillel were outrageously lenient in their interpretation. They permitted a man to divorce his wife for any reason, even burning his food. It gets worse, because some rabbis took the phrase “and it come to pass that she find no favor in his eyes” to mean that a man could divorce his wife if he found another woman who was more beautiful.

There was an opposing school of thought, that of the conservative Rabbi Shammai. He was much stricter and taught that the critical words
"some uncleanness" referred only to marital indecency (sin) short of adultery. I say “short of adultery” because adultery was punishable by death. If a newly married husband discovered that his wife was not a virgin, then he could put her away; just as Joseph was about to do with Mary before the angel spoke to him (Matthew 1:18-25).

No matter what answer Jesus gave, He would be sure to displease somebody, and this might give opportunity to arrest Him. The verbs indicate that the Pharisees
kept asking Him, as though they hoped to provoke Him to say something incriminating. Of course, Jesus knew the wicked and manipulative hearts of these men. He didn’t answer them based on their erroneous interpretations of Scripture. He took them back to the beginning. Let’s take a look.

Jesus was asked if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. He puts the question back to them in Mark 10:3 to draw out a point about Moses' teaching on divorce. They said (Mark 10:4) that Moses permitted divorce if a man would write a certificate of divorce. To which Jesus responds, “For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept.” In other words, the law that you use to justify your divorce and remarriage, testifies not to the desire of God's heart, but to the hardness of your own. God has tolerated and regulated the hardness of your heart in His law. Jesus explained that Moses gave the divorce law because of the sinfulness of the human heart. The law protected the wife by restraining the husband from impulsively divorcing her and abusing her like an unwanted piece of chattel. By giving this commandment to Israel, God was not putting His approval on divorce or even encouraging it. Rather, He was seeking to restrain it and make it more difficult for men to dismiss their wives. He put sufficient regulations around divorce so that the wives would not become victims of their husbands’ whims.

But then Jesus calls for a new standard of faithfulness by pointing back to an old design of God. In Mark 10:6 He says,
“But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female.” Then He quotes Genesis 1:27 and traces the meaning of marriage back to the very first design of God in creation. The issue of divorce and remarriage, He says, is not mainly about the way God regulated the hardness of heart in the law; it is mainly about the meaning of marriage as designed by God in creation. This takes us back behind the law and teaches us that the basis of marriage is God's action, that marriage is God’s design. Marriage is not man's idea, it’s God’s, and God's design is what’s at stake with divorce.

Then in Mark 10:7-8, Jesus makes the explicit connection between God's creation of male and female on the one hand, and marriage on the other hand by quoting Genesis 2:24:
“For this cause [because God created man male and female with a design for marriage] shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; and they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh.”

Do you see? The leaving of father and mother and the cleaving to each other to form a new family unit, is God's idea rooted in the way He created and designed mankind as
male and female. Then Jesus gives an important and powerful declaration followed by an important and powerful command in Mark 10:9 He says, “What therefore God hath joined together, [the declaration], let not man put asunder [the command].” The declaration is that marriage is the work of God. “What God has joined together…” It is not just a human tradition, and this is true even for people who don't believe in God. Marriage is God’s, not man’s. Therefore we see that God designed it in Genesis 1:27 and God described it in Genesis 2:24; and God did it the day you got married. Therefore, I say, marriage is a work of God and gets its meaning from God.

Therefore, Jesus ends his answer to the Pharisees, with the powerful command,
“What God has joined let no man separate.” The joining is God's, the separating is to be God's – by death.

“But is it lawful?” That is what the Pharisees had asked, and evidently the disciples, having heard Jesus plainly shut the Pharisees’ collective mouth, needed to ask the question again (Mark 10:10). Is it lawful to divorce and remarry? Jesus answers them in Mark 10:11-12. First He addresses the man who is thinking about leaving his wife to marry another woman: “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.” Then He turns it around and focuses on the woman who is thinking about leaving her husband for another man: “And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.”

What's the point of these two verses? Why does Jesus say this? Doesn't He know that people who are divorced and remarried; parents of people who are divorced and remarried; that children of people who are divorced and remarried are going to read this? Doesn't He know this will hurt? Yes, He does know that, and He cares about that. There are few things that hurt more than the break-up of a marriage. It is far more painful than the death of a spouse and does much more damage to all concerned. Jesus knows that. But unlike our day, where not hurting feelings is the essence of love, Jesus thinks the essence of love is helping people to live in sync with reality, namely, God. Sometimes it hurts, sometimes it doesn't, but it's always meant for our good, if we will believe Him.

I think the aim of Jesus here is prevention, not destruction. He is talking to those who can still turn back, and He is saying: marriage is God's idea: He designed it, He described it, and He does it. It is one of the deepest realities in the world; deeper than any of us knows. What God joins together He joins deeply together; deeper than feelings, deeper than promises, deeper than intimacy, and deeper than friendship. “One flesh” is a deep, deep mystery. That is exactly what Paul calls it in Ephesians 5:32. And he says it is an image of Christ and the church. The union of husband and wife in marriage is like the union of God and His people. It is an ocean of deep, deep unseen wonders. Yet many people today treat it like a backyard wading pool for lounging around as long as we feel like it.


Jesus says: God joined this! The charge of adultery (in Mark 10:11-12) is far deeper than we think. Marriage is an image of the covenant commitment between Christ and the church for which He died. To walk away from marriage for another relationship is not just about marriage, but about Christ and about God. What God has joined together in man and woman, in Christ and church, do not separate. God will never separate Christ and his church. Let your marriage tell the truth about that. Don't lie to the world about the covenant between Christ and His church. God joined this. Don't separate it; even an image of it.


(And just in passing, so that you know where I stand - though I don't have the time to develop it - that is one of the reasons I would not counsel you to end your second marriage. Repent if you should. Start where you are to honor the vows you have made and, cost what it may, fulfill your calling to live out the rock-solid relationship of Christ and His church.)

Marriage is a work of God and gets its meaning from God, and its meaning is mainly the portrayal of the covenant love between Christ and his Church. So don't separate what God has joined. Tough it out, talk it out, pray it out, fast it out, cry it out, wait it out, and when you are at the end of your resources, remember: like a child, like a helpless, insufficient, needy, trusting child, receive the kingdom; receive the King's help. But don't break it up.

He comes to us all and says, “I am an all-providing, all-loving King. If you will receive my kingly design for your marriage (even if you must do it by yourself), I will be there to help you. With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible (hence the command not to put asunder what God has joined).”

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Seriousness of Discipleship

In Mark 9:42 Jesus states, “Whosoever shall offend one of [these] little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast in the sea.” Clearly, Jesus was not exclusively referring to actual children, but He did mean all those who are believers. Personal sin is serious, and just as serious, if not more so (if that’s possible), is to cause someone else to sin. I’m sure there were a few – like twelve – jaws on the floor, maybe some “gulps” and wide eyes staring at Jesus when He made this statement because the disciples had been provoking each other to jealousy, envy, and resentment. They had been proud, self-seeking, and causing each other, and maybe even others such as the unnamed exorcist, to sin.

How do we cause people to sin? There are at least three ways.

Directly
Purposefully seducing and leading others to do what we know is wrong. This is the most obvious form of causing others to sin. Jeroboam is the prime Old Testament except of one who caused God’s people to sin. Beginning in 1 Kings 14 and continuing all the way through 2 Kings 23 you will read of “Jeroboam, who did sin, and who made Israel to sin.” In his letter to the church at Thyatira (Revelation 2:18-29) the glorified Christ warned them to repent from the false teaching of “that woman Jezebel” who was teaching and seducing “my servants to commit fornication.” If she and those who hearkened unto her would not repent, Jesus warned, they would be cast into great tribulation and killed. We directly lead others into sin when we lead them to follow a path that glorifies ourselves or someone other than the Lord. When we use others for our own pleasure instead of leading them to praise and glorify God; in all these ways and more we directly seduce others to sin.

Indirectly
We indirectly cause others to sin when we set a bad example for them to follow. We may not openly seduce them towards sinful patterns, but by a negative or careless example we indirectly lead them to sin. D.L. Moody used to tell the story of a little boy who one night snuck out of his house in the middle of a heavy snowfall to follow his dad. His dad was going to a bar, and as he was walking he began to hear snow crunching behind him. He turned and saw his little boy hopping from one footstep to the next, literally following in his daddy’s footsteps. The father said, “Son, where are you going?” The boy answered, “I'm just following your footsteps, Daddy.” Moody said that was the last time the man ever took a drink.

In regards to parents, specifically fathers, we are guilty of this when we provoke our children to wrath (Ephesians 6:4) by being overprotective, never affirming, never pleased with their effort, expecting perfection, playing favorites, neglecting them, being physically and/or verbally abusive. Instead of being an example of sinfulness, we are to be an example of holiness (1 Timothy 4:12).

Indifferently
We also cause people to sin through indifference. You may say, “I don’t try to lead people to do sinful things, and I don’t set bad examples. In fact, I don’t get involved at all. I do my own thing. Mind my own business.” That’s the wrong answer. Christianity is not a religion of isolation. Christianity is supposed to be lived out in community. Believers must be engaged with each other, stirring one another up to love and good works; not neglecting the assembly; encouraging one another to faithfully follow Christ all the way to the end (Hebrews 10:22-25).

Instead of provoking others to sin, we are to provoke one another to be joyful, committed disciples of Christ.It is better to suffer the agonizing death of drowning than to cause another believer to sin. I didn’t say that. Jesus Christ did!

Sin is serious, and believers are commanded to deal drastically with it. Jesus did not and does not take sin lightly, and you will never find cheap remedies for sin in the Bible. In order for anyone to be ultimately saved from the penalty of sin, which is death and eternal punishment in a literal hell, Jesus Christ had to die on the cross. He died as our substitute. Jesus Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many, and those who believe have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Sin is serious and hell is real. Mark 9:43-48 read like a horrific song, and the dreadful phrase: “Where their worm dieth not, not the fire is not quenched” is the chorus. That repeated refrain is actually a quote of Isaiah 66:24, which is a vivid description of what awaits those who rebel against God. The word Jesus uses for “hell” is gehenna. Gehenna refers to the valley of Hinnom just south of Jerusalem. It was the place where some of the wicked kings of Israel had offered their children to the Moabite god Molech to be burned with fire. It was a defiled place, and it became the garbage dump of Jerusalem where fires continuously smoldered and repulsive worms fed on the garbage. To the Jews Gehenna fittingly symbolized the eternal fire of hell.

Jesus spoke of hell more than any other person in the New Testament, and He spoke of hell more often than He did heaven. When we read these somber and serious words of Jesus about hell, we must understand that when they are applied to an unbeliever who has resisted and rejected the good news of Jesus Christ, it means that the person's whole life is like something tossed on a burning garbage dump; a waste, a total loss. An unbeliever may have won the approval of other people, may have lived comfortably, but at the end of life ends up on the trash heap for eternity for rejecting God’s only begotten Son. This is a warning to unbelievers. Deal drastically with your sin, by turning in repentance and faith from the path that you are on and to the Lord Jesus Christ who has already paid the penalty that a righteous God demands. Remember one of the verses we’ve already quoted from 1 John 4:10: “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

That’s one application of this text, but the primary application, in the context of this passage, is to those who have already believed. Jesus is not addressing unbelievers but His disciples. (Now this in no way implies that believers are able to lose their salvation. Just as it in no way teaches that one should literally maim one’s self as a means of avoiding sin and gaining eternal life.) Jesus used hyperbole to demonstrate the seriousness of sin, and to teach us to take drastic measures in our own lives regarding what we doour handswhere we goour feet – and what we see and look atour eyes – so that we avoid sinful behavior and keep away from leading others – directly, indirectly, or indifferently – to sin also. Nothing is so precious that it should be maintained if it leads us to sin. Just as sin leads men to eternal punishment in hell, sin will lead the believer to the depths of discipline from our Lord and lead another Christian into sin. This is why Paul says to the Corinthian church, “I keep under my body, and bring [it] into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.” (1 Corinthians 9:27)

Take drastic measures to deal with your own sin; to avoid the chastening rod of God; to keep from leading another believer into sin, and to avoid leading an unbeliever away from Christ. Our lives our like signposts pointing others towards a certain direction and as Christians we must be certain that we are pointing others always to Jesus. To quote Paul’s letter to the Corinthians once again, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also [am] of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Believers are called to be salty rather than sinful Christians. This is not a reference to salty language but to salty lives; in other words, lives consecrated to Christ. Old Testament sacrifices were seasoned with salt (Leviticus 2:13). Believers are to offer their lives to Christ as, in the words of Paul yet again but this time from Romans 12:1-2, “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, [which is] your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what [is] that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”

Instead of being seasoned with salt, however, disciples of Jesus Christ will be seasoned with the fire of trials, just as Peter wrote about in 1 Peter 1:6-7 and 1 Peter 4:12. It’s what Paul warned the Thessalonians about in 1 Thessalonians 3:3-4, and the Christians of Antioch in Acts 14:22. If we will be disciples of Christ we must willingly be “salted with fire.” Through fiery trials the disciple’s faith will emerge tested and purified for his own good and God’s own glory!

Salt was a crucial commodity in the ancient world. Roman soldiers would sometimes be paid in salt, and the Jews had a maxim which stated, “The world cannot survive without salt.” We primarily use salt today as a seasoning, but salt was so important in antiquity because it was used as a preservative. Salt preserved food from rotting. Jesus’ call for Christians to “have salt in yourselves” is a call for His disciples – then and now – to be a preserving influence in a decaying world. Sinclair Ferguson writes:
Our Lord’s point is that unless we maintain the purity of our own lives and are purified by the flames of testing, and remain faithful to Christ, our lives will have no preserving influence on this corrupt world. If we begin to fall into the same patterns of life as those which are characteristic of the world, we will never be able to point men and women to another world.
Let’s not overlook or downplay Christ’s final admonition in this passage. Our Lord says, “And have peace one with another.” This is not an anti-climatic tacked on phrase but a beautiful summation of His point. When the Christian community in general and the local church in specific is able to “have peace one with another” we are clearly distinguished from the back-biting and back-scratching communities of the world. This calls to mind another of those Johannine passages which we read earlier, John 13:35, “By this shall all [men] know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”

Being at peace with one another is a reflection of the God-given peace we have received from Jesus Christ. True Christian fellowship and cooperation is a powerful witness to a divided, loveless, violent world. Jesus leaves us here with some heart-searching questions:
  • Am I seeking supremacy for myself and my group, or I am I seeking to glorify and promote the cause of Christ?
  • Am I treating sin casually? Do I deal drastically with sin in my life?
  • Am I willing to be cleansed through fiery trials?
  • Am I living as a preservative on society, or am I contributing – through action or inaction – to the decay?
  • Am I living and serving with my fellow church members peaceably?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Misplaced Zeal

The first word of Mark 9:38-50 is the conjunction “and”, which immediately connects what had just been said (Mark 9:33-37) with what is now being said. Jesus was in the middle of a lesson in understanding true greatness; a lesson the Twelve desperately needed to learn. We are no different. Jesus used a child to illustrate His lesson, and the child demonstrated two things. First, all genuine believers are those who have humbled themselves before Christ and become like trusting children. Second, as followers of Christ, we do not serve others motivated by a desire for prestige, place, or prominence. Instead, we serve everyone, the powerful, the helpless, and all those in-between motivated by a desire to make much of God and declare His glory.


At this point in the lesson we read, “And John answered him.” This block of instruction prompted a comment from John, but before we dive into John’s comment, we will briefly browse through his profile. John was inspired by God to pen the Gospel account bearing his name, the three general epistles which also carry his name, and the book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ. He was originally a disciple of that other John, the Baptist, who began to follow the One of whom the Baptist gave testimony (John 1:35-37). John never named himself in his gospel. He often referred to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Indeed, John is identified by many theologians and writers as the “apostle of love” because that theme is so interwoven in his writings. John provides us with the foremost verse on God’s love (John 3:16). John 13:35 records these words of Jesus, “By this shall all [men] know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”

His first general epistle is littered with the word love. It appears 33 times, and from that letter we have such well known verses as:
  • 3:1“Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God”
  • 3:16"Hereby perceive we the love [of God], because he laid down his life for us.”
  • 3:18“My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.”
  • 4:10“Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
  • 4:19-20“We love him, because he first loved us. If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?”
The lessons of Christ’s love and humility were lessons well learned by the apostle, but they were learned and developed characteristics, not ones which were natural to him. Do not forget that Jesus tagged John and his older brother James with the nickname “sons of thunder.” These were men of fiery temperament, much of it misplaced; especially early in their discipleship. That is made evident in today's passage for study (Mark 9:38-50).

The teaching on true greatness by serving all people in the name of Jesus got John to thinking, and he said to Jesus, “Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbad him, because he followeth not us.”

Well, the nerve of some people! Going around and ministering to others, in the name of Jesus mind you, but not following the Twelve! John told this man, in no uncertain terms, to stop helping people. John saw to it that there would be no unauthorized ministry in Jesus’ name.

Zeal is a good thing, but unless it is governed by Biblical discernment and a consuming love for the glory of God it will do more harm than good.

Sectarianism is one of the easiest “isms” to follow, and this is coming from the mouth of an Independent Baptist pastor! How easy it is for servants of Christ to think that no good can be done in the world, unless it is done by their own group. We are quick to condemn and silence those who differ from us, as if they did not follow Christ because they do not follow Him with us. John was zealously jealous for the exclusive honor of being an apostle, and he would not suffer anyone to take part in what he thought was solely his.

I love JC Ryle’s comments on this passage. He wrote:
We may think our fellow Christians mistaken in some points. We may fancy that more would be done for Christ, if they would join us, and if all worked in the same way. But all this must not prevent us [from] rejoicing if the works of the devil are destroyed and souls are saved. Is our neighbor warring against Satan? Is he really trying to labor for Christ? This is the grand question. Better a thousand times that the work should be done by other hands than not done at all. Happy is he who knows the spirit of Paul when he says, “If Christ is preached, I rejoice, yea, and will rejoice.” (Philippians 1:18)
We do not know anything about this anonymous exorcist except that what he accomplished was done in the name of Jesus. We also know that Jesus, by His response to John, gave at least an implied commendation of this man (Mark 9:39-40). Jesus patiently taught His disciples, and us, that ministry in Jesus’ name is not the prerogative of the few, but the privilege of all those who belong to the kingdom.

Does this mean that all people who name the name of Jesus are genuine disciples? Is Christ teaching that we are to link arms with all who give lip service to being Christian? Not at all! We are not instructed to embrace those who name the name of Christ but do not preach the truth of Christ. There is no middle ground with Jesus. You are either for Him or against Him. You either proclaim truth or you stand against it. There is no middle ground between truth and error. There is no middle ground between sound doctrine and heresy.

The issue here is not that we are to be tolerant for any and all positions, no matter how aberrant or heretical they may be. What’s at stake here is the glory of and primacy of Christ. Notice that John did not say, “We stopped him because he does not follow You.” His words were, “We stopped him because he does not follow us.” The “us” there is a reference to the Twelve. John’s concern was not primarily for Christ’s honor and kingdom. He was more concerned with safeguarding his own role. Which is why Jesus explained that the real issue is not whether or not this man is one of the Twelve, but whether or not he is for Jesus or against Jesus.

It is the height of foolishness to believe that God only works within your own circles. It’s what John Wesley called the “The miserable bigotry which makes men so unready to believe that there is any work of God but that which takes place among themselves.”

Jesus pressed home the point by saying, “Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in my name, because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.” Forget casting out demons – something which the Twelve had recently struggled to do anyway – in the final analysis, it is more important that the servants of God are devoted to Christ than to groups, movements, or ideologies. Indeed, to cause a believer in Christ to stumble and sin is to bring upon one’s self severe judgment. How severe? It would be better to have a millstone hung around your neck and thrown into the sea. This is serious. Christianity is serious. Do you take this seriously?

Pride was one sin with which the apostles mightily struggled. Again, we are no different. Pride will not only cause one to personally sin, but it may easily cause other believers to stumble and sin, and as Jesus teaches in the remaining verses of this chapter, that is a very serious thing. There is a somber tone in verses 42-50 as the Lord used graphic, stunning language to emphasize the seriousness of sin; as well as the seriousness of discipleship. If we are serious about following Christ, about spiritual growth, then we must deal drastically with ourselves; not only for our own sake but for the sake of others as well.

We'll examine the seriousness of discipleshipnext next time.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Measure of True Greatness

What does it mean to be great? How do you measure greatness? It would seem obvious that greatness is measured by: achievement, advancement, and recognition. Therefore, a corporate type defines greatness as promotion and a corner office. Craftsmen are considered great when their work is highly valued, appreciated, and coveted (not to mention expensive). Lawyers measure greatness by favorable court decisions. Artists measure greatest by being displayed in the finest and most fashionable galleries. Athletes are considered great if they break records, and especially by winning championships. If you’re a pastor, greatness is often measured by numbers, a packed preaching schedule, and peer recognition. We often define greatness in these terms: achievement, advancement, and recognition.

In Mark 9:30-37 Jesus describes the measure of true greatness in a fashion most unfamiliar to our normal assumptions.

In Mark 9:34 the disciples were discussing who of them was the greatest. Jesus began His instruction on true greatness in Mark 9:35. What Jesus does here is very profound. He recognized in His disciples' quest for greatness a good thing that had, because of sin, become ugly and distorted. Therefore, instead of destroying the whole distorted thing, He described a pathway on which the distorted and ugly pursuit of greatness would be radically transformed into something beautiful.

I find it significant that nowhere does Jesus criticize one for pursuing true greatness or true significance. I think this is because He created us to be great and to be significant. What then has happened to this God-given longing for greatness is that it has been corrupted by sin in two ways:

  1. it has been corrupted into a longing not to be great, but to be known as great
  2. it has been corrupted into a longing not to be great, but to be greater than someone else.


In other words, the joy of true greatness has been perverted by sin into the carnal pleasure we sinners get when others praise us and when we think we are greater than others are. Jesus saw this in His disciples and instead of destroying the whole distorted thing, He described a pathway on which it will be radically and rightly transformed.

He says true greatness is not wanting to be first while others are second and third and fourth, but true greatness is the willingness to be last. True greatness is not positioning yourself so that others praise you, but true greatness is putting yourself in a position to serve everyone; to be a blessing to as many as you possibly can. Go ahead and pursue greatness, but understand that the path is down not up!

Take pastors, for example: the measure of true greatness is not how many people come to his church, or how many other pastors emulate his methodology, or how many conferences at which he speaks. The measure of true greatness is his heartfelt desire to serve others; his readiness and willingness to decrease while others increase. Beware how you measure greatness in the servants of the Lord (1 Corinthians 4:5; Romans 2:29).

Jesus saisd: "If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all." Then He took a child and pplaced him in the circle of apostles (Mark 9:36). Why? What does this action have to do with teaching about the measure of true greatness?

The point is so clear that Jesus doesn't have to say it. The point is that children are among the "all" of Mark 9:35. The child illustrated that if one would be great, if one would be first, one must be the servant of children, take time for children, not look down on or despise children, and not say, "Children are women's work."

In a church setting, if you would be great, you will not rule out nursery duty; you will pray earnestly about teaching Sunday school classes for children; you will think hard about leading a boys' club or girls' club; you will spend yourself in the fight to overcome child-killing; namely abortion.

Why does Jesus illustrate His point about serving with a child? The discussion wasn't about children. Why does Jesus bring them in? The answer is that there is no political payback in serving children: they can't vote. They don't give speeches about how great is your helpfulness. In fact they pretty much take for granted that you will take care of them. They don't make a big deal out of the fact that you pour your life out for them. So children prove, more clearly than any other kind of people, whether you are truly great or not; whether you live to serve or live to be praised. (See Luke 14:13–14 for how the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind also prove this.)

Now comes the second thing Jesus said (Mark 9:37), and it is utterly unexpected. We might have expected Him to pick up on His previous point (Mark 9:35) and apply it to children. Something like: "Now here's a child. The person in our society that men don't serve. The person you don't think is worth your time. Well I am showing you that children are worth your time. They are significant."

That is not what Jesus says. Jesus turns the whole discussion away from the value of the child and to the value of God. Jesus says: "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me."

What about the children? Aren't we supposed to serve the children (or anyone) because of the children?

Surely the answer of Jesus here is this: you serve a child best when you receive a child and care for a child and spend time with a child and hold a child NOT in the name of the child, or in the name of mankind or in the name of mercy or in the name of America's future, but in the name of Jesus, the Son of the living God. And you serve children best when you receive a child not merely because your joy is first in the child, but first and finally in God.

Now put the two statements of Jesus together. In Mark 9:35 He said if you would be first, you must be last of all and servant of all. In Mark 9:37 He said if you receive a child in my name, you receive God. In other words, when Jesus calls you to be the servant of all, including children, He is not calling you to some heroic self-sacrifice. He is calling you to stop chasing the tiny bubbles of man's praise and start pursuing God. Stop trying to receive praise in the service of men and starting receiving God in the service of others.

What do you want? Do you want the fleeting praise of mortal men? Or do you want God?