Therefore, I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands...  1 Timothy 2:8

Prayer Challenges

Thoughts from Doug Knox.

November 2020 - July 2021

Jesus' Discipleship Model, Part 1
Mark 4 :1-12

The Story of the Disciples

Several years ago, a radio discussion featured Jesus’ method of disciple-making.  The speaker said that when Jesus worked, he capitalized on the moment.  Whenever an event occurred, Jesus would use it as a teaching opportunity. I cannot remember the person who made that observation, but his insight has stayed with me.  I knew that someday I would have to write a series on his discipleship methods.  That time has come. All four Gospels show how Jesus taught his followers, but two feature close examinations of Jesus teaching methods.  One is Mark, and the other is Luke.

Mark’s Gospel:  The Call to Head the Truth

From chapter 4 on, Mark focuses on Jesus’ training of the twelve.  Jesus parable of the soils divides the world between his followers who have been given “the secret of the kingdom of God” and those who are “outside” (Mark 4:11). The twelve, along with a larger group (Mark 4:10), are privy to the secret of the kingdom.  This fact does not allow them to rest on their laurels.  To the contrary, they carry a far greater responsibility for learning and applying the truth.  Throughout a good portion of his book, Mark will focus on the disciples’ less-than-stellar performance of their task.

Luke’s Gospel:  The Call to Die to Self

The other major source of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship arises from Luke.  Just before he begins his journey to Jerusalem, Jesus tells his audience that following him is costly.  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Jesus has come into the world to die in the most agonizing manner ever devised.  Those who wish to follow must set aside any feelings of self-importance so that they may hold Jesus as their most valuable treasure.  He calls this tradeoff denial of oneself.  During his journey to Jerusalem in Luke 10:51 – 19:44, Jesus encounters several would-be-followers who exhibit varying degrees of understanding or misunderstanding about discipleship.  Jesus wastes no time in correcting them.  We will look at some of Luke’s portraits in the latter half of the series.

Jesus in Mark’s Gospel

First, we will look at Mark.  If he were alive today and wanted to pitch his Gospel as a movie script to Hollywood, the producers would laugh him out of the room.  Hollywood wants tortured heroes who must discover their hidden personas on their own.  They must overcome personal inadequacy, confront villains stronger than they, and grope to find the inner strength to rise to defeat their enemies on hostile turf. Mark’s portrait of Jesus is exactly the opposite.  He is the Son of God who knows exactly who he is (Mark 1:1-3).  His Father tears open the heavens to shout his approval (Mark 1:9-11).  He announces the fulfillment of time with complete authority (Mark 1:14-15).  His enemies cower before him (Mark 1:23-27).  He seizes what is rightfully his (Mark 2:1 – 3:35), and after doing all of this, he submits to his own death.

Teaching to the Crowd

Mark introduces Jesus’ teaching ministry in chapter 4 with the parable of the soils.  The story is one that we know well—or at least we think we do.  Jesus begins by teaching to “a very large crowd” beside the sea (Mark 4:1). Whenever we see a crowd in Mark, their presence signifies interference.  The crowds always miss the picture, as we will see in this instance.  Jesus knows this and introduces a parable in which a man sows seed.  It falls in four distinct areas: by the roadside, on rocky soil, among thorns, and on good ground. The first three areas fail to produce a harvest.  Only one works, and that is the “good soil.”  This soil produces thirty-, sixty-, and a hundredfold increase (Mark 4:8).

Teaching to Confuse

Jesus gives nothing more to the crowds.  No explanation and no pleading.  He adds only a pair of admonishments at the beginning and the end: “Listen!” (Mark 4:3) and “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9).  In the next verses explain why he is dismissive.  When Jesus is alone with the twelve and a larger group of close followers (Mark 4:10), they ask him about the parable.  His answer:

“To you has been given the secret to the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive; and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’”

 --Mark 4:11-12, quoting Isaiah 6:10


The Reason for Rejection

Does Jesus mean to reject a whole group of people who would come to him who otherwise might have a reasonable chance to find the truth?  Not at all.  Most people spend their lives in truth-rejecting mode.  When they hear the word, signified by the seed, they hear words but miss the message.  Four reactions to the word are possible.  The first is outright rejection.  Jesus characterizes this as the ones by the roadside.  Satan robs them before they have a chance to think about what they have heard. The second group, “rocky ground,” balks when they encounter internal difficulties with the word.  For these, the gospel message is a great ride until—oops—they discover that a cost is involved.  These recipients “fall away” (Mark 4:17). The third reaction is called “the ones sown among thorns.”  These run into external interference against the word.  Jesus calls this interference “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things.”  When the word encounters this audience, it becomes overpowered by all the noise and “proves unfruitful” (Mark 4:19).

 Those Outside and the Secret of the Kingdom

Rejection of the word, internal difficulties with the word, or external interference that clouds the word.  Any one of these reactions numbs the soul of the person who hears.  Is it any wonder why God consigns these three groups to “the outside”? By contrast, those who understand the secret of the kingdom receive an invitation to follow.  The invitation does not give them privilege.  It makes them more responsible for what they hear.  As we will see, Jesus grades them on a much steeper learning curve.

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Jesus' Discipleship Model, Part 2
Mark 4 :13-25

A Fundamental Difference

I once knew a pastor who defended what amounted to a one-size-fits-all ministry philosophy.  He argued that the job of pastoral ministry was teach at a level that the most basic members in the congregation would be able to understand the message.  He was right in his desire to reach the most basic.  That principle is a given in Christian ministry, and Christian ministers must do their best to reach the neediest members of the people to whom they minister. At the same time, I believe that he was shortsighted in his assumption that the basic-level teaching that is necessary for some would be sufficient for all. Jesus’ parable of the soils shows us in the most concrete terms possible that fundamental differences exist between people who hear the gospel.  Some get it while others do not, and Jesus directs the bulk of his time toward those who do.  In fact, he builds his teaching ministry around that reality.

 What Jesus Does with the Differences

In Mark 4:1-9, he brings a parable to the crowds who followed him to the Galilee lakeshore.  Most of the crowd listens to the parable and the concluding admonition, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  Then they go about their business. A few take the time to consider what they heard and the ask about the reason for his strange manner of teaching.  Jesus explains that his parables go to differences in the spiritual divide between the people.  Mark writes,

 Mark 4:10-12 (ESV)  

10  And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables.

11  And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables,

12  so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive,

and may indeed hear but not understand,

lest they should turn and be forgiven.’”

 Jesus divides the world into two groups: those who have “been given the secret of the kingdom of God,” and those who remain “outside.”  Further, he quotes from Isaiah 6:9-10, which is a curse on those who do not hear.  The ones who cannot receive the truth have their chance revloked. Well, that hardly sounds fair.  What about teaching that tries to reach the simplest among us?

 Living the Truth in a Deluded World

The truth of the matter is that most people are unable to see the truth regardless of how simply anyone presents it to them.  This is why Jesus talked about four different soils.  The soils symbolize the four fundamental responses to the gospel.  Some reject the truth outright.  Others fly with the truth until they discover that discipleship is difficult.  Still others spend their lives fixated on stuff that interferes with the truth that guides their eternal souls.  These three all fail in the end, and Jesus lets them go.  They hear “without effort or heeding” (James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), 138). The fourth group consists of those whom Jesus describes as “good soil” because they bear fruit.  These are the ones who have been given the secret of the kingdom of God. They do not get to say, “Lucky me!” and then bask in their glory.  They must understand what they have been given so they can take the truth to a disinformation-saturated world.  Jesus gives his disciples five principles that show the characteristics of fruit bearing:

 Mark 4:21-25 (ESV)

21  “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand?

22  For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light.

23  If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”

24  And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you.

25  For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

 Biblical authorities share different opinions on their exact meaning.  I believe that the sayings go to personal responsibility in discipleship.

  Verse 21: The rhetorical question in this verse moves to the heart of the issue.  The lamp is Jesus (Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, 139.  Those who have him know whom they have.  To borrow a double negative, we cannot not know that we belong to him.  He dwells within us to shine light on dark places.


  • Verse 22: Jesus ultimately will bring all truth to light.  He cannot be kept secret so that a select few may gloat.  AS he manifests the truth, so must his followers.
  • The central point in verse 23 repeats the call to the walking deaf in verse 9.  Its place at the center of this five-part teaching shows its importance.  When Jesus calls the deaf to listen, he wants the truth to begin to cut through the fog in their brains.  When he calls the privileged to listen, he commands them to understand the purpose for the truth so they can begin to apply it.
  • Verses 24: Having heard the interpretation of the parable, we find ourselves under even greater responsibility to pay attention to what we hear.  On the one hand, we are under obligation.  “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you...”  But we also have promise of a reward: “…and still more will be added to you.”
  • Finally, Jesus expands the meaning of the obligation.  “For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”  He rewards those who take their gift seriously.

Jesus’ does not teach that God saves by our works.  No one could give him something that he does not already own.

He does teach that works emerge from salvation.  They are the visible fruit of seed sown on fertile ground.  Those who produce fruit have every right to expect even greater grace.


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Jesus' Discipleship Model, Part 3
Mark 4 :35-41

A Steep Learning Curve

What teacher would dare throw a pop quiz on the first day of class?  Well, Jesus would.  At the end of the parable of the soils and related parables Mark concludes with these words:

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it.  He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.

--Mark 4:33-34

On the surface, the conclusion sounds like he is done with a major section.  He is not.  The next verse, which introduces the storm on the sea, begins, “On that day, when evening had come, he said, ‘let us go across to the other side’” (Mark 4:35 emphasis added).  Clearly, Mark wants to connect the interpretation of the parables to the events that lead to the storm.  Let’s see why.

Mark’s Account

Here is the account of the storm on the sea in its entirety.

Mark 4:35-41 (ESV)

35  On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”

36  And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him.

37  And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.

38  But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

39  And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.

40  He said to them, “Why are you so afraid?  Have you still no faith?”

41  And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

 Mark’s Writing Style

Mark is a lean writer.  He boils the entire account of the disciples’ debarkation, their crisis on the sea, and the awe that follows when Jesus rebukes the wind and waves down to a single paragraph.  The paragraph falls into four episodes.  These are:

  • Transition from teaching as Jesus isolates the disciples, (verses 35-36)
  • Crisis when a storm threatens to flood the boat, (verses 37-38)
  • Calming of the storm, (verse 39)
  • A new crisis that grows from the resolution, (verses 40-41)

Transition: From the Ordinary World to Crisis

Imagine a good suspense movie.  We seldom enter the movie in the middle of the suspenseful situation.  Instead, we begin with opening scenes that show us the characters in their everyday world.  These become markers.  When the tension begins, we see how and why the characters react to the crisis and how they ultimately return to their normal lives. Mark does just that in the opening of this episode.  After finishing his teaching, Jesus has the disciples shove off for the other side of the lake.  Verse 36 mentions three details that reinforce the meaning of “normal” for the disciples.  The first occurs at the verse’s opening.  “And leaving the crowd…”  Mark uses this comment to prepare the scene.  Crowds signify interference in Mark’s Gospel.  The disciples do not know the fact yet, but their isolation from the crows will allow Jesus to work with them alone. Second, the disciples take Jesus onto the boat, “just as he was.”  In borrowing their boat, he has made himself beholden to them.  He continues in this position as a passenger.  For the moment, he lives on their time.  Finally, Mark says that “Other boats were with him.”  The other boats complete the picture of the normal world before the storm begins.

Into the Storm

Mark’s description in verse 37, “A great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling,” launches the disciples into the middle of a crisis.  The storm resists any efforts to maneuver through it.  The boat fills with water.  Everyone aboard is about to drown.

Meanwhile, Jesus sleeps.  The disciples wake him with the words, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  These words reflect the kind of dread that drives men beyond the ability to frame rational questions.  They have become like children.  Please do something, Teacher.

Moving Into even Deeper Crisis

Jesus does something, but it is nothing like what his friends could have expected.  He wakes up and rebukes the storm.  It obeys, and a great calm replaces it. Peace was never so disturbing.  Now, the disciples move from a problem with the storm to a problem with Jesus.  This is reflected in Jesus’ words, “Why are you so afraid?  Have you still no faith?” The question, “Have you still no faith?” indicates faithlessness at two points in time.  So, where exactly in time does this question lie? If its focus lies in the middle of the storm, then another earlier faithlessness must have occurred before the storm.  Mark records no pre-storm faithless acts. If we move their continued unfaithfulness forward a few seconds to the calm, the question makes perfect sense.  Now, it reflects the disciples “great fear” in verse 41.  For the first time, the disciples see Jesus’ superiority over the storm, and he presents a specter that dwarfs mere wind and waves.  Drowning is one thing.  Confrontation with supernatural authority raises the stakes to a whole new level.  But this is precisely the lesson that Jesus wants to convey.  He is master over nature. The realization is too great for them.  They are catapulted from ordinary fear to a level of terror unimaginable within the bounds of the ordinary world.  “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

What Jesus Expects

Who is he, indeed?  The secret of the kingdom of God, which the Father has given them (Mark 4:11), takes them to Jesus.  Knowing him drives them to territory from which they will never escape.  “Normal” is where the crowds live, among the people who reject Jesus outright, or who follow him only superficially, or remain caught up in their distractions.  Jesus’ chosen men cannot go back to that world because they now live under the King of the Cosmos.

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Jesus' Discipleship Model, Part 4
Mark 5:1-13

An Unstoppable Monster

One of my great memories from my youth was the time that Dad took me to the theater to see my first Godzilla movie.  I was into dinosaurs, so this was the perfect venue for me.  And since I was still in single digits, I was too young to notice that the special effects consisted of a guy in a monster suit knocking over scale buildings in a miniature Tokyo.  I was with my dad watching my favorite subject on the big screen. One thing did jar me, however.  The movie ended without resolution.  The combined defense forces were powerless to stop Godzilla, and the picture closed leaving the monster to continue unabated. For years, I wondered why the movie makers ended the movie the way that they did. I was an adult when I learned about the larger story behind the Godzilla monster.  The movie came into being after a Japanese fishing trawler wandered near the top-secret testing site for America’s first hydrogen bomb in the Bikini Atoll in 1951.  When the bomb detonated, the fishing crew was twenty miles away. Fallout enveloped the fishermen.  Rescue teams returned them to Japan, but the men died agonizing deaths from acute radiation poisoning.  Godzilla’s character grew out of that event. The version that aired in America was watered down.  The Japanese film was a horror movie.  Among other factors, Godzilla’s hide was made to resemble the fishermen’s burnt skin.  The Godzilla character symbolized the American bomb—an unstoppable destructive force, without morals, reason, or purpose.  Their monster was real.

A Biblical Version of Terror

Mark’s Gospel carries its own version of a Godzilla monster.  The event comes on the heels of the nighttime storm on the sea. Following the storm on the lake, the disciples landed on the east side.  Mark describes the landing in matter-of-fact terms.  “They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes” (Mark 5:1). But let’s move beyond the ordinary.  Only hours before, Jesus talked down the wind.  The sea changed instantly from storm to calm, leaving the disciples awestricken.  The remainder of the trip doubtless was silent before the man that they only thought they had understood.

Unfortunately, the debarkation only brings a new crisis.   As soon as they leave the boat, a man with an unclean spirit confronts Jesus.  Here is Mark’s summary of what happened:

Mark 5:2-5 (ESV)

2  And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit.

3  He lived among the tombs.  And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain,

4  for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces.  No one had the strength to subdue him.

5  Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones.

 The man among the tombs is the Godzilla character, unstoppable, untamable, and living in agony.

Greater than Godzilla

Unlike Godzilla’s character, however, the man shrinks before Jesus.

Mark 5:6-8 (ESV)

6  And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him.

7  And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  I adjure you by God, do not torment me.”

8  For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”

 Mark does not record the disciples’ reaction to the man falling before Jesus, but the encounter must have taken them further into the realm of chaos.  First, they encounter the storm, and now they meet a madman who falls before Jesus pleading for mercy. Who is this Jesus, what is he doing with his disciples, and why does he drive them into such unspeakable realms of chaos and confrontation?

  Who, What, and Why?

We know the answer to the first question from our historical perspective.  He is the crucified and risen Son of God, the rightful King of the universe.  The second and third questions require a bit more thought. One critical factor stands above everything else.  Jesus is never out of control in either of these incidents.  When he sleeps during the storm, he trusts his heavenly Father to care for him.  When he rebuked the storm, he exercised his sovereign control over the elements.  And now, when he stands before a man who is humanly uncontrollable, he prepares to show his authority over the spirit world as well.

Before that happens, Mark drives us to Jesus’ confrontation with the power behind the man who grovels before him.

Mark 5:9-13 (ESV)

9  And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.”

10  And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country.

11  Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside,

12  and they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.”

13  So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the sea.

The scene becomes increasingly more surreal by the moment.  When we finally see Jesus release the demons leave the man, they terrorize two thousand swine.  The picture is as striking for Mark’s audience as a fifteen-megaton hydrogen bomb was to those at the beginning of the atomic age.

Exploring the Answers to the “Why” Question

So, why does Jesus drag his men into such incomprehensible situations? Part of the answer goes to Jesus’ teaching strategy.  So far in Mark, Jesus has been acting solo.  This is purposeful.  Mark has stated already that he chose the twelve “so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons” (Mark 3:15-15).  Jesus will continue to do all the work until he empowers the disciples and sends them out in chapter 6. For now, he takes them into realms where only he can do what he does, because they need to know him on this level.  Only then will they be able to imitate his works.  They need to observe.  As we will see in the second part of his encounter with the man among the Garasenes, the twelve have much more to grasp.

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Jesus' Discipleship Model, Part 5
Mark 5:14-20

Restoring Men

Anyone who is familiar with the man who had the legion of demons knows what he was saved from.  The more significant question asks what the man was saved to. The simple answer is that the Jesus restored the man to manliness.  Mark paints a vivid word picture of the man whom Jesus rescued, both before and after the rescue. Demonic forces have robbed him of his sanity, driving him to constant torment.  He lives naked among the tombs, cutting himself and crying out constantly. His anguish drives him to superhuman power.  People have tried to bind him, but he breaks free.  In Mark’s words, “No one had the strength to subdue him (Mark 5:4).

A Stolen Life

When Mark introduces the man, he hints at a single being.  “And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. And crying out with a loud voice, he said, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  I adjure you by God, do not torment me’” (Mark 5:6-7). Inwardly, the malevolence reveals itself as the controlling presence that it is.  “For he [Jesus] was saying to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’” (Mark 5:8).  The unclean spirit turns out to be a legion of demons who have taken up residence in the man.  They destroy his life as a man.

The High Value of Liberation

Before the liberation to takes place, two thousand pigs run into the sea and drown.  Have you ever thought about the level of disruption that Jesus caused when he granted the demons’ request to enter the pigs? This is a violent picture.  Why would Jesus permit such a severe outcome? The first thing we need to realize is that does not portray him to be nice.  He is a liberator, and liberation involves disruption.  Something must be destroyed.  In this case, a whole livelihood ran into the sea, and the townspeople panicked over Jesus. When the herdsmen run into the town to report what has happened, Mark describes what the town witnessed with the words,

And they came Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid.  And those who had seen it described to them what had happened to the demon-possessed man and to the pigs.  And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their region.

--Mark 5:14-15


The main message is clear.  The man has been liberated from his bondage.  The people find him “sitting there, clothed and in his right mind.”  Sitting in this context depicts rest rather than passivity.  In his prior uncontrolled state when he lived among the dead, wrenched apart shackles and chains, disfigured himself, and screamed in perpetual agony.  Now he is free. He is also “clothed and in his right mind.”  Where he exploited and brutalized before, now his freedom emerges from submission to Jesus authority.

The Cost of Liberation to the Status Quo

Unfortunately, the man’s liberation is bad news for the townspeople.  In one of the most cryptic statements in the account, Mark writes, “And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their region” (Mark 5:17).  In the original language, the sentence reads, “And they began to beg him to depart from their region.  Mark may mean the man rather than Jesus. Regardless of which character Mark references, the irony is significant.  The townspeople could handle a maniac whose screams they could hear every night, but they could not tolerate quiet, restored order.

The Countercultural Marks of a Biblical Man

The man in Mark has become a biblical man, a man who rises above the demands around him. In opposition to his prior state, he is “clothed and in his right mind.” He has been freed from the bondage that has kept him in slavery all his life.  He thinks for himself. He identifies with Jesus.  When he understands who created him and rescued him, he enjoys time with him. He projects self-confidence.  His prior state caused him to live in agony.  Now he has discovered genuine identity, and he will never go back. Finally, he becomes noticeable when he discovers God’s greater purpose for his life.  Mark writes,

 Mark 5:18-19 (ESV)

18  As he [Jesus] was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him.

19  And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”

20  And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.

Jesus’ liberation is glorious.  He gives us rest from turmoil and shows us how to become significant.  He brings the deep sense of joy that emerges from our recognition of purpose.

Courageous or Nice

One of the greatest marks of liberation from oppression enters when Jesus teaches us how to exercise courage over fear.  In other words, we do not have to be “nice” to opposing forces. Part of the reason for that is because niceness, in fact, is absent from biblical virtues.  Niceness gives in to opposition.  It tolerates squatters so long as they agree to keep chaos to a minimum.  Of course, niceness fails to recognize that the “minimum” tolerable level of chaos never stays the same.  The boundaries always become compromised. Biblical manhood recognizes what is ultimately valuable and makes its stand there.


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Jesus' Discipleship Model, Part 6
Mark 5:21-43

Mark points out early that the purpose for Jesus’ choosing of the twelve is so that “he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons” (Mark 3:14). He even makes a point to tell them that the Father has gifted them with a deeper-than-average ability to understand his teaching.  The whole account of the parables in Mark 4:1-34 stands to show the fundamental difference between themselves and the crowds. So why, then, does he abandon Jesus’ teaching about teaching in order to show him engaging in a series of trips over the Sea of Galilee?  All the material from Mark 4:35 – 5:43 involves stopovers around the lake, and all Jesus works are solo. Look at the incidents.  Immediately after he finishes teaching the people in parables, he has the disciples take him across the lake (Mark 4:35).  Then he goes to the bottom of the boat and falls asleep. When a storm threatens, he calms the wind with his word and then proceeds to chew out his men for their lack of faith in crisis (Mark 4:39-41). Following this, they land in the country of the Gerasenes on the southeast shore, where Jesus encounters the man with the legion of demons.  In this entire episode, Mark records exactly zero interaction between Jesus and his disciples. Immediately after this, Jesus goes to the other side, where he meets Jairus the synagogue ruler (Mark 5:21-24 and 5:35-43) and a woman with a menstrual discharge (Mark 5:25-34).  Neither incident shows much interaction with his disciples. If we were cynical, we might be tempted to believe that Jesus is using his men for free shuttle service. However, a closer look shows us much more.

The Completion of a Quartet of Events

Look closely at Jesus’ encounter with Jairus and the woman with the discharge.  The scene begins in chaos.

Mark 5:21-24 (ESV)

21  And when Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered about him, and he was beside the sea.

22  Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name, and seeing him, he fell at his feet

23  and implored him earnestly, saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.”

24  And he went with him. And a great crowd followed him and thronged about him.

I happen to be an introvert, which means that I can stand only so much social interaction.  So, when Mark puts crowds at the beginning and the end of Jesus’ arrival, I see nothing but chaos and tension. Jesus, on the other hand, can tune out the hubbub in order to focus on Jairus.  He focuses on the mission to save a father’s little girl from death.

Wrenching the Readers from One Story to Another

But this is where the story gets dicey.  Amid the crowd, a woman who has had a twelve-year-long discharge of blood follows secretly, hoping to touch the hem of his garment so she can be healed. So…what about Jairus? Sorry.  Mark has dropped him for the moment.  He wants to introduce us to the woman, and he makes the break a large one.  Where he gave us only a few words about Jairus, he covers the woman’s story in detail—her discharge, the unsuccessful medical treatments under “many physicians,” and her subsequent bankruptcy. He has captured our attention.  If we have any sympathy at all, we feel for her.  Therefore, when he writes, “She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment.  For she said, ‘If I touch even his garments, I will be made well’” (Mark 5:27-28), we cheer for her. We know what happens next.  Jesus turns around and says, “Who touched my garments?” (Mark 5:30). Now the disciples enter, and Mark casts them in a negative light again.  “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’” (Mark 5:31). No, guys, he did not ask, “Who touched me?”  Jostling is expected.  He asked who touched his garments, a question that points to purpose and goes straight to the woman.  Mark writes, “The woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth” (Mark 5:33).  In this context, the whole truth is much deeper than something like, “Yeah, it was me.” The woman’s confession took in her twelve years of suffering and exploitation, and easily could have taken between two to four hours to tell.  Doubtless, the detail that Mark gives us on her background comes from what the disciples heard from her own lips. However, Jesus seeks her to vindicate her faith rather than condemn her, as she apparently suspects. Notice the healing power in his affirmation.  “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (Mark 5:34).

Connecting Vindication and Tragedy

What an incredible close to the woman’s story.  After sharing her physical and emotional turmoil, we conclude with confirmation of her difficulties, affirmation of her faith, and healing.  She leaves a vindicated woman. Mark uses Jesus’ designation for the woman ironically.  While Jesus tells her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well” (Mark 5:34), messengers come to Jairus to announce, “Your daughter is dead” (Mark 5:35). While one daughter speaks, news arrives of another’s daughter’s death.  How could Jesus let this happen? The answer lies in the text.  Mark shows us that the two lines of dialogue occur at the same moment.  “But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe’” (Mark 5:36).  

Believe what, exactly?  The panicked father has had to wait for hours while Jesus listened to someone with a far less urgent medical situation, and now he hears the news that he has tried so desperately to avoid. Jesus does not guide Jairus to a resolution of the situation.  He directs him to himself.  We could paraphrase “Only believe” to “Just trust.”  That is, trust Jesus to manage the situation.  Trust this divine warrior to fight in ways that you cannot comprehend.  Trust him to guide you when you have no idea where to go.  Come to know his peace in the middle of crisis. Jesus then dismisses everyone but Jairus, Peter, James, and John.  Mark again touches on a contrast.  “They came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly” (Mark 5:38). Ironically, he brings shame on himself to remove the people.  When he tells them that the girl is only sleeping, they laugh at him.  His word is not for them, and he dismisses them.  (see Mark 4:10-12). He takes the parents and his witness to see his first act of bringing someone back from the dead.

The Importance of Being with Jesus

So, what does all this have to do with the opening statement that Jesus wants to send the disciples out to preach and have authority to cast out demons?

To answer that, we must go back to Mark’s more foundational statement.  Jesus chose the twelve, not just for the things he wanted them to do, but “that they might be with him” (Mark 3:14). Now that they have been with him through these four incidents, they have witnessed his uniqueness.

  • He commands the elements.
  • He exercises authority over the legions in the demonic world.
  • He defies disease.
  • He reverses death itself.

Jesus exercises sovereignty over his creation.  Sovereignty does not mean that he watches over his well-oiled machine.  It means that he reaches down among the broken gears and machine parts to bring restoration. This is why he has brought the twelve with him while he works solo.  They need to witness these things more then they know.  They have only one more lesson before Jesus sends them out on their own.



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Jesus' Discipleship Model, Part 7
Mark 6:1-6

The Dynamics of Disbelief

Several years ago, an evangelist friend introduced me to a term that he had coined to describe those who continue to reject the truth after they have heard and seen repeatedly.  He called it “unknowing the truth.”  In my mind, it was the perfect term to portray entrenched disbelief. If we were to describe the term more precisely, we might call it the determination to disbelieve the truth when the only reasonable option is to accept it as truth and follow it. Following the four supernatural encounters during which the twelve witnessed Jesus authority over nature, the demonic world, sickness, and death, Mark takes us to an encounter that draws us into the heart of disbelief. The narrative begins innocently enough. “He went away from there [the east side of the lake] and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him” (Mark 4:1). Jesus has his disciples with him.  In my mind, Mark’s statement is extraordinary.  After all the trauma the twelve experience with Jesus, they stay with him.

Demand for the Ordinary

The picture immediately turns sinister, however.  Mark writes,

Mark 6:2-3 (ESV)

2  And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands?

3  Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

Mark’s description on the people’s astonishment in verse 2 might lead us to believe that they experience a sense of wonder. Alas, that is not to be the case.  The next verse shows us their resentment.  Instead of recognizing a prophet, they see “the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon,” along with his sisters, and they are offended by the sight. Offended! Perhaps if Jesus had been content to become a celebrity teacher, they might have accepted his status.  Something like Drew Carey hailing from Cleveland. The disconnect that occurs among the people is bigger than star power, however.  Their own words testify that they have seen things that no ordinary man has done or recognized.  They witness Jesus’ wisdom.  They watch him perform mighty works. They see the same things that the twelve have seen.  But where the twelve at least have enough sense to be afraid, the crowd becomes offended. In a conflict between Jesus’ human origins and his actions, they see his origins as the immovable object.  Being the carpenter’s son disqualifies him from doing the works that he does.  The crowd has missed the deeper reality.  The important point is not the object that is immovable.  It is the force that is irresistible.  His works are real, and they show that his origins are deeper than what they have assumed.  His actions bear witness to his character.

Impotence…but whose?

Mark continues his narrative with Jesus’ response to the people’s offense, which takes the form of both words and actions.  First, the words: Jesus tells them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household” (Mark 6:4).  These words are a smackdown.  The problem is not with Jesus.  The problem is with the people who are unable to tolerate him. When Jesus makes his comment about the prophet’s lack of honor, he does not use the word metaphorically, as if it were a blanket term for anyone with any kind of charisma.  He means to communicate that he is a literal prophet. His prophetic authority rests on Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 18.  One of the marks of a prophet, for example, is his faithfulness to his calling.  Speaking through Moses, God said, “I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.  And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him” (Deuteronomy 18:18).  Jesus speaks all that the Father commands. This point leads to Jesus’ actions.  Despite his perfect relationship to his Father, his work falls short in Nazareth.  “And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them” (Mark 6:5). Mark’s comment raises a conundrum.  If Jesus could do no work there, the people appear to have tied his hands. The impotence is not his, however.  It is their entrenched obstinacy.  “And [Jesus] marveled because of their unbelief.  And he went about among the villages teaching” (Mark 6:6). Think about the concept.  Jesus marveled.  Usually when we use the term marvelous, we associate it with grandeur.  Here, it describes something dreadful.  Here, the people’s bias deep that brings Jesus himself short.  

This is not to say that our faith can create results.  It cannot.  But apparently, collective skepticism goes a long way in raising up blockades to the truth.

The Disciples’ Lessons

On the surface, this event appears to be a giant “oops” moment in Jesus’ discipleship program.  Beneath the surface, it is fundamentally important.  

The next event that Mark will record is the sending of the twelve with authority over unclean spirits.  Jesus’ men have witnessed his authority over creation, over the spirit world, over sickness, and even death.  They have seen his sufficiency for any situation. Now they have seen the depths of human resistance to God’s witness. Their last experience teaches a lesson as important as any of the previous ones.  Regardless of the depth of Jesus’ glory, some will continue to resist.  The disciples’ job will not be to convert.  Their job will be to proclaim Jesus and leave the results to the Lord.


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Jesus' Discipleship Model, Part 8
Mark 6:21-29

The Character of Characters

 When a story’s momentum revolves around a single character, his job is to push the narrative forward.  Usually, he finds a worthy goal and pursues it, often against impossible odds.  His willingness to face internal and external difficulties generates our love for his story.  We cheer for such a man. In Mark’s narrative on Herod, the king is a cheerless and despicable character who generates nothing but our contempt.  He is a passive man.  During his brief appearance in the Gospel, he neither understands what he wants nor knows how to defend what is right.

 Moral Vertigo

Herod experiences the moral equivalent of what aviators often experience when flying through a cloud bank without their instruments.  They can become so disoriented that they begin to fly upside down without realizing the fact. Herod is flying upside down in his moral universe.  He has taken his brother’s wife, only to find that John the Baptist challenges his unlawful marriage to her.  The conflicts pile up like firewood.

Herod has stolen his brother’s wife Herodias and married her, while John dares to call the king out on his marriage.

  • Herod throws the prophet into prison because of his challenge.
  • Herod fears John because John is a holy man and keeps him safe, while his wife Herodias schemes his execution.
  • Herod, though he is “greatly perplexed” by John (Mark 6:21), continues to seek audiences with him.

 Three characters—John the Baptist, Herod the king, and Herodias—generate this conflict.  John stands for the truth.  Herodias fights for John’s elimination.  Herod wavers.


 The Tragic Irony of “Opportunity”

 John’s death scene begins with an ominous introduction.  “But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee” (Mark 6:21).  “An opportunity came…”  Talk about understatement. This opportunity is sinister, and it falls into Herodias’s daughter’s hands.  Herod will be powerless against the fireball that is about to consume him.

 For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests.  And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.”  And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.”

 --Mark 6:22-23

 Herod’s offer to donate half his kingdom is not just foolish.  It is dangerous beyond imagination.  Here is a weak king trying to look powerful.  In the end, he sets himself up for ensnarement.


Industrial-grade Treachery

 In a statement that sounds almost odd, Herodias’s daughter goes out to ask her mother what she should do (Mark 6:24).  On the surface, her question resembles the starry-eyed choices that arise out of game shows like The Price is Right.  “Should I take the cash or trade it for whatever is behind the curtain?” In reality, it is shrewder than that.  With Herod’s vow before the court for all to see, Herodias’s daughter she sees the opportunity to demand something that possesses far higher strategic value than a political favor that settles for land. We get an idea of the level of mother and daughter’s shared calculating natures when Herodias tells her daughter to demand John the Baptist’s execution from Herod.  Herodias, in other words, is after vengeance (Mark 6:24). Her daughter leavers mere vengeance at the starting block.  Mark shows the level of her contempt with his description of her response.  “And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter’” (Mark 6:25 emphasis added).  This is a level of vindictiveness that exceeds even her mother’s wickedness.  She humiliates the king in public.  


Stellar Timidity

 A strong king would have executed both Herodias and her daughter on the spot for demanding something so far out of line. Unfortunately, Herod is no such man.  He has become trapped in his own vow.  The women own him, and they know it. Their demand is designed to wound.  It shows their superior position over the king, and everyone can see the fact.  Herod may be brutal, but these two women are cunning, and they steal any opportunity for him to think or recant. Mark closes the passage in the same irony that he has built throughout the section.

 Mark 6:26-29 (ESV)

26  And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her.

27  And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison

28  and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother.

29  When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.


The Meaning of Honor

 There we have it.  Herod the king, Herodias and her daughter acting in tandem, and John’s disciples each take positions that reflect individual relationships to honor. The king was “exceedingly sorry,” but not sorry enough to trade his public image for courage.  Given the opportunity to do the honorable thing, he chooses to grovel. Herodias’s daughter, meanwhile, flaunts her coup.  She receives John’s head on the platter as she demanded, and then gives it to her mother.  The dance at the beginning of the episode closes in a fatal ballet.  She who knows only treachery will never understand such a noble concept as honor. Only John’s disciples display a sense of honor when they come and take his body to lay it in a tomb. Honor is the recognition that certain values outweigh ourselves, and it gives momentum to courage. In this narrative, honor flanks dishonor.  At the beginning, John dares to speak the truth.  At the end, his disciples risk their own safety to give him a proper burial.  These are the ones whom Mark remembers as honorable.


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Jesus' Discipleship Model, Part 9
Mark 6:30-34

Mark’s Bigger Story

Following the account of John the Baptist’s unlawful execution, Mark returns to a subject that he broached earlier—the sending out of the twelve to cast out demons and heal people.  His return to the prior subject does not show haphazard writing skills.  His sandwiching of John’s fate into the larger narrative is deliberate. The transition back to the ministry of the twelve begins in typical fashion, by jumping from one subject to the next with barely a breath.

Mark 6:30-32 (ESV)

30  The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught.

31  And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.

32  And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.

 Mark’s narrative goes back to discuss details that he has left out.  For review, here are the three parts in the larger account of Jesus’ work following his rejection by the people in his hometown:

  • --Jesus leaves the people of Nazareth to unbelief and assigns the twelve to minister in specially chosen villages around Galilee, (Mark 6:6-12)
  • --Herod hears about the ministry of the twelve and concludes that John the Baptist has come back from the dead, (Mark 6:13-29)
  • --The apostles return to share their accounts of a successful ministry effort.
  • --Meanwhile, Jesus calls them to take some time for rest, only to be interrupted by the crowd who seeks Jesus.  This culminates  in the feeding of the five thousand, (Mark 6:30-44).

The transition from Herod back to the twelve includes a number of elements that tie all three sections together.

  • The men go out as “the twelve” go out (Mark 6:7) and return as “the apostles” (Mark 6:30).  Mark’s wording shows that he recognizes the honor that Jesus’ select men have gained in the successful completion of their ministries.
  • King Herod hears of it (John 6:14).  “It” in this context is the apostles’ work among the villages.  We do not know how long the twelve ministered to the people, but their ministry obviously had an impact if the word spread all the way too Herod’s palace.
  • The apostles testify to Jesus about “all that they had done and taught” (John 6:30).  Obviously, they have worked hard and are excited over their success.
  • Jesus calls his men to go to “a desolate place by themselves” (John 6:32).  Doubtless, part of the purpose for their rest was to mourn John’s death.
  • The combined success of their ministry has driven Jesus and his men to the point that they lack even time to eat (John 6:31).  Jesus recognizes this and calls them to abandon the crowds for a time.  Renewal is never a selfish desire.  No one completes a long-term mission on adrenalin alone.

 Dealing with Interruptions

Unfortunately, Jesus’ plans for rest encounter a snag.

Mark 6:33-34 (ESV)

33  Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them.

34  When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.

I have to admit that I do not react to situations like this with such grace.  Usually, my selfish side rears its head, and I want nothing more than for people to leave me alone.  When the phone rings, I yell at it because I know that someone at the other end wants something. Jesus’ perspective is far more balanced than mine.  Even when he needs to mourn for John, he finds room to feel compassion for the people because they are like directionless sheep. His life is a remarkable testimony to his ability to know when busyness threatens to smother genuine productivity, when flexibility is necessary, and when the opportune time is important enough to forego personal needs.


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Jesus' Discipleship Model, Part 10
Mark 6:35-44

The Story Behind the Feeding of the Five Thousand

Mark’s account of Jesus feeding the five thousand is not a stand-alone story.  It rests under the combined shadow of the twelve’s ministry as apostles in the villages surrounding Nazareth and the news of John the Baptist’s execution on their return.

Mark shows both threads in his introduction.  On the one side, the twelve meet Jesus in triumph after their ministry.  “The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they head done and taught” (Mark 6:30).  The men have gone out green and have come back with experience.  They have delivered on their tasks.  Because of their success, Mark refers to them under their earned title, apostles.

On the other side, they remain human.  Tragedy has accompanied success, and they need to take time for restoration.  “And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31).

Compassion from Different Perspectives

Unfortunately, the apostles’ plans for rest are interrupted by a crowd that runs to the place ahead of them.

We have seen already that Mark’s impressions of crowds are less than optimistic.  Crowds are near-sighted and demand attention.  Crowd-pleasing events seldom bear real fruit, and Jesus relegates crowds to his lowest levels of teaching (Mark 4:10-12).

Here, however, Jesus views them with sympathy.  “He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.  And he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34).

The disciples feel sympathy for the crowd as well, but on a different level.  “And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late.  Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat” (Mark 6:35-36).

An Object Lesson in Deeper Understanding

Question:  Why does Mark refer to the twelve as disciples again.  Did they not just prove themselves?

I believe he uses the title change to note a subtle change in their thinking.  When he writes that the apostles returned, they are focused on Jesus’ authority.  Now, the disciples ask Jesus to send the crowds away to get food.  They have let the problem eclipse their understanding of their master.

Jesus’ response wrenches them back to a deeper line of thinkiing.  “You give them something to eat” Mark 6:37).

This is an odd command.  The disciples have neither money nor food.  Without resources, they have no place to go.  What are they supposed to do—ask Jesus for some kind of miracle?

Well, you know….

The Reader’s Encounter with the Disciples’ World

We readers view the obstacle in the same way that the disciples encounter it.  We reflect on human resources.  Jesus calls them (and us) go to the person.  It   is a who question rather than a what question.

The idea goes back to Mark’s guiding principle in Jesus’ calling of the twelve.  He chose them “so that they might be with him” (Mark 3:15). Presence matters more than anything else in Mark.  As long as they are with Jesus, they are safe, and when they recognize the fact, they are able to tap into unlimited resources.  Their work among the villages has shown them that they simply have to connect the dots between the need and the Need Supplier.

Big Need; Bigger Supplier

Unfortunately, they draw the line from the need to themselves.  “Shall we go and buy two hundred Denarii worth of bread [equaling about two thirds of a year’s wages for the average worker] and give it to them to eat?” (Mark 6:37).

The need is humanly possible to fill, but that is exactly Jesus’ point.  “And he said to them, ‘How many loaves do you have?  Go and see.’  And when they had found out, they said, ‘Five, and two fish’” (Mark 6:38).

Hearing that, Jesus shows the disciples the solution that they had lost.  “Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass.  So they sat down in groups. By hundreds and by fifties” (Mark 6:39-40).

This act creates a massive sense of anticipation among the people.  Thankfully, Jesus is ready to meet it.  “And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the people.  And he divided the two fish among them all.  And they all ate and were satisfied” (Mark 6:41-42).

Interpreting the Moral of the Story

Mark closes with two facts, both of which point to sufficiency.  In the first, “They took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and fish” (Mark 6:42).  The disciples each come away with a physical reminder that Jesus is sufficient for all our needs.

The second fact reemphasizes the same point.  “And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men” (Mark 6:44).  Interestingly, this is the last statement in the account, and it shows up only after the issues are resolved.  Its point is to show Jesus’ greatness.

If we read the narrative with a view to the ideas that propel the story, we realize that Mark’s concern is never about the problem.  The story’s theme revolves around the disciples’ need to see as Jesus sees, in terms of ministry.  When they concentrate on the food problem, the momentum stops.

I wonder whether the modern section header, “The Feeding of the Five Thousand,” drives us in the same direction.  “Five thousand” changes our expectation of the story’s direction before we even begin to read it.

The number does not matter.  Jesus was sufficient for ten.  Mark spends his time showing that rather than staring at the problem, the disciples needed to partner with Jesus and move ahead.

At the beginning of the account, Jesus meets an interruption with compassion.  This is the lesson that the apostles should witnessed.


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Jesus' Discipleship Model, Part 11
Mark 7:1-12

When Others Miss Our Mark

Following Jesus’ visit to the Gennesaret, Mark records a confrontation with a group of Pharisees and scribes.  The encounter begins with an observation.

Mark 7:1-2 (ESV)

1  Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem,

2  they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed.

Mark, who writes to a Roman audience, goes on to explain the Jewish custom of washing—with a little parody.

Mark 7:3-4 (ESV)

3  (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders,

4  and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.)

When he completes the explanation, Mark drops the bomb.

Mark 7:5 (ESV)

5  And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

The Biblical Meaning of “Defiled”

Did you notice the profoundly opposing perspectives at war with each other in the question?  The elite rest in their settled position under “the tradition of the elders.”  Meanwhile, they marginalize the twelve because they eat with “defiled hands.” So, what exactly does the word defiled mean, and why is it such a big issue for the Pharisees and scribes? The term does not imply corruption or ruination, as contemporary English defines the word—at least primarily.  Its primary application in the Bible is associated with ordinary use, as opposed to devoted use.  In most cases, the word means common.

The picture holds true in both the Old and New Testament.  In basic terms, if something is regarded as holy, it is set apart from common use.  To be common is not to be inferior.  It is merely to be ordinary. One of the fundamental duties for the Old Testament priest, for example, is to “distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” (Leviticus 10:10 emphasis added).  If something is regarded as holy, it is separated from ordinary objects. In cases where something holy becomes compromised, then the idea of corruption enters the picture.  That which was supposed to be holy has become defiled.  Leviticus 11:43-45 describes such a situation.

Dirty Hands, Marginalized Men, and Outside-in Defilement

In Mark’s account, the Pharisees and scribes’ picture is out of kilter.  First, they view themselves too highly.  They believe that their ceremonial hand washing makes them holy. Second, they apply this line of reasoning to Jesus.  Since the twelve associate with him, and since Jesus claims to be a holy man, then his disciples should practice hand washing as well.  If Jesus understood this, they reason, then he should call his men to practice purity in ceremonial washings.  After all, dirty hands make marginalized men, Jesus should be aware of that. Obviously, it is not, or Jesus would have made his disciples wash.

The error in the religious leaders’ thinking lies in their belief that they can make themselves holy by going through the right motions.

 The Difference between God’s Commandment and Human Traditions

Jesus pounces on the challenge.  Mark writes,

Mark 7:6-8 (ESV)

6  And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips,

but their heart is far from me; 7  in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

8  You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

 Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13, and his choice of this passage is surgically precise.  In verse 6 above, he uses the Isaiah passage to declare that the religious leaders give him lip service that lacks devotion.  The fact that the leaders are so quick to challenge Jesus’ practice shows that this is true. Then in verses 7 and 8, he addresses the tradition of the elders.  The Pharisees and scribes have abandoned God’s commandment in favor of adherence to human traditions.

He will go on to explain how they have made the trade to human traditions in the verses that follow.  We will cover those details and what they mean for men in the next installment.


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Jesus' Discipleship Model, Part 12
Mark 7:9-23

Loud Truth

Sometimes, the problem with men who think they know too much about too little is that they do not know when to shut up.  They think they own their corner of the world until a real authority steps in to set the record straight. This installment continues the theme of the Pharisees’ objection when Jesus refused to force their longstanding observance of ceremonial hand washing on his disciples. The religious elites of Jesus’ day had begun to place so much stock in the act of ceremonial washings that their obsession overcrowded bigger issues.  This drove Jesus to quote Isaiah 29:13, where he condemned the people of his day of honoring God with their lips while their hearts are far from him.  Jesus’ conclusion is, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8).

When Truth is Simpler than Fiction

This is where Jesus enters the picture as a genuine authority on matters of obedience over tradition.  After his condemnation, he backs his verdict up with an example.

 Mark 7:9-13 (ESV)

9  And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!

10  For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’

11  But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)—

12  then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother,

13  thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

Jesus’ force of logic makes his condemnation undeniable.  Verse 9 sets up the assertion in his argument.  The elites have rejected God’s command in order to establish their own tradition. In verse 10, Jesus proves his point by citing two commands regarding children’s relationship to their parents.  The first is the more foundational of the two.  “Honor your father and your mother.”  This command is part of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:12, meaning that it occupies a defining place in God’s law. The second, “Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die,” comes from Exodus 21:17 and also occupies an early placement in the unfolding of God’s laws for his covenant people. Jesus has chosen these commands purposefully.  Together, they place honoring father and mother against reviling them. These two commands do not speak to young children whom we teach to be obedient to their parents.  The choice to honor or revile is an adult one that recognizes the dignity of older parents who are still alive.  The family’s sanctity stands on these commands.


The Danger of holding Tradition over Truth

This is what makes Jesus’ rebuke so harsh.  The religious authorities have undercut the dignity of the family with a manmade loophole that allows them to obtain unjust gain for themselves.  In Jesus’ words, “But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother.” Let’s put Jesus’ words in plain terms.  The act of declaring designated care to be Corban amounts to coercing grown children to tell their parents, “About the support that we had set aside to protect you in your old age, we—ah—decided to give it to the synagogue.  We understand that we are neglecting our duty to support you as we should, but be happy anyway.  While you starve, God’s work will prosper.” Redirecting parental support money away from the parents in order to give it “to God” actually means stealing what rightfully belongs to the parents in order to give it to religious authorities who lack any right to it.  In so many words, the payments amount to extortion. As if the Lord is pleased to receive graft from his subjects who have betrayed the very parents that God had called them to protect in the first place.  Jesus exposes the leaders’ actions for what they are.  They have voided God’s commands so that they can benefit from the outcome.  All in the name of “tradition.”


Jesus’ Protection of his Men

This series has focused on Jesus’ methods of discipleship, which has been Mark’s concern throughout his Gospel.  In Mark 7, however, we see little visible discipleship.  But let us take a closer look. The first 13 verses of the chapter revolve around a verbal attack by the religious elders who condemn Jesus’ disciples in order to attack Jesus.  Notice how they phrase the question: “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (Mark 7:5). The leaders do not care about the twelve.  Their target is Jesus.  Jesus understands this and speaks on behalf of his men.  They never need to utter a word in this round.  Their champion defends them. Jesus has foiled the religious leaders at their own game, but if he settles for a defensive victory alone, his victory will show only that he is a skilled authority on the law of Moses.  In the next section, he will arise with all the authority that he possesses as the Son of God. The next ten verses will show Jesus moving to the offense, and his victory will carry ramifications that will astonish generations of believers.


Lessons in Discipleship

The material that we have seen so far in Mark 7 takes Jesus’ discipleship to new territory.  It shows that discipleship includes more than just rigor.  Yes, Jesus demands much from the men that he has chosen, but he cares for their welfare as well. In this case, the religious leaders place the disciples in the line of fire in order to ambush Jesus.  Jesus reads their plans, blocks the fire, and outflanks them.  He clears their enemies as God does, because he is God.  As one of the psalmists wrote in a meditation on deliverance,

 Psalm 116:5-6 (ESV)

5  Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; our God is merciful.

6  The LORD preserves the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me.

The disciples have experienced this deliverance with Jesus.  Discipleship is as much witnessing what God does as it is doing what he commands.

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Jesus' Discipleship Model, Part 13
Mark 7:24-37

Out of the Classroom and Into the World

We are drawing near to the conclusion of Jesus’ ministry in Judea, and with it we will reach the end of Jesus private teaching to the twelve.  Jesus is about to conclude his “classroom” lessons. Mark 7 closes with encounters with two doomed individuals—one woman and one man.  Each of these encounters will offer lessons that will prove to contain important guidelines for the apostles during their ministries after his resurrection. Following that, Mark 8:1-26 will feature a two-part practical exam for the apostles just before Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem to die.  Mark’s assessment of the twelve is not optimistic.

The First Encounter: Compassion for the Marginalized

Jesus is never stationary in Mark’s Gospel.  He is always on the move.  In this section, he moves to the region of Tyre and Sidon on the Mediterranean coast.  The area is about fifty miles northwest of the Sea of Galilee.  Mark writes,

 Mark 7:24-26 (ESV)

24  And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden.

25  But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet.

26  Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth.  And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.

 Mark does not explain why Jesus goes so far away, but Jesus’ desire for privacy in verse 24 suggests that he needs a period of rest.  That was not to be.  A woman whose daughter has a demon begs him to come to the little girl’s rescue.  Jesus and the apostles live in a hardened culture.  Women lack privileges.  For a woman to enter a presumed stranger’s house and present herself to a holy man and teacher is unimaginable. For a Gentile woman do commit such an act is doubly reprehensible.  I do not believe we can understand the shock that her action creates in those around her.  Nonetheless, she breaks the most rigid cultural rules to see him. Jesus responds within the cultural bounds, but also with compassion.  Notice how gentle he is with her.  “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27).  The term children in this passage refers to the Jews, whom God had chosen from the nations to be his particular people.  By contrast, the dogs signify the Gentiles, those who are outside of God’s specially chosen inheritance. To be a dog is to be an outcast.  The word is a racial insult.  Granted, Jesus uses the kinder word, “puppies” to describe the situation, but the racial component is still there.  He as a Jew is privileged.  As a Gentile, she lacks that status. Nonetheless, the woman persists.  “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28). The woman’s answer is skillful.  In this simple sentence, she declares that she understands her underprivileged position, and she shows that she accepts it.  But she also reminds Jesus’ about grace.  If he gives her only crumbs of grace, she knows that they will be enough to liberate her daughter. Mark concludes with these words: “And [Jesus] said to her, ‘For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.  And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone” (Mark 7:29). The first lesson to the disciples is simple in concept but difficult practical approach.  Faith, whether it arises from a Jew or an outsider, is what pleases God, and he extends the invitation to all.  In the years that follow Jesus’ ministry on the earth, God’s grace will flow to all the nations, not just to the Jews.  His disciples must be ready to be ready to find joy in that grace to outsiders.

 The Second Lesson:  What Jesus’ Greatness Really Means

The second miracle brings Jesus back to the Sea of Galilee, to the region of Decapolis.  Mark describes the scene simply:

 Mark 7:31-35 (ESV)

31  Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.

32  And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him.

33  And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue.

34  And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”

35  And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

By taking the man away from the crowd, and also by touching him, Jesus shows deep compassion for an otherwise forgotten individual.  And of course, the healing is complete. Jesus’ charge to the people who had brought the deaf mute to him is curious.  “And Jesus charged them to tell no one” (Mark 7:36).

This is not the first time Jesus has forbidden word about him to go out.  At the beginning of the Gospel, Jesus told the leper whom he had cleansed, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer your cleansing what Moses commanded for a proof to them” (Mark 1:44, referring to the cleansing laws in Leviticus 14). Later, Jesus told the parents of the little girl that he had brought back to life to keep that matter secret (Mark 5:43). So, why does Jesus tell the people to keep the matter quiet?  The issue has come to be known as the Messianic Secret, and has been a matter of debate.  I believe that the best answer is that Jesus knows the hearts of the people.  His mission is not to become a celebrity messiah who stands up and does tricks on demand.  He is called to serve (Mark 10:45) and to be the Savior of the world.

 The Messianic Secret in the Second Half of Mark

For now, Mark holds the issues wonder and silence in tension.  How can the people remain silent when they have witnessed such a great work?  The tension becomes evident in the people’s reaction to the healing.  “And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well.  He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak’” (Mark 7:37). This work marks the end of the disciples’ training in Galilee.  A two-part test awaits them in chapter 8.  As we will see, Mark paints a bleak picture of their progress. When Mark begins the second half of his book in Mark 8:27, Jesus will be even more adamant about maintaining the secret.  His sights are on Jerusalem, where he is to go to die. Nothing must deter him from that mission.


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