Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Unpleasant Message about Being Christ's Disciples

We’re going through “Christianity Explored,” an evangelistic Bible Study that goes through the Gospel of Mark, right now, and the passage we read last night, I thought, was a profound one. I’ve preached through the Gospel of Mark before, and was often struck by all of the things I was missing in the Gospel back when I had given it a simple reading before.

First, we need to understand that Christ’s miracles, in Mark, represent the miracle Christ will do in each of us who believe. The miracle is a the miracle of life, healing, and transformation. Most people associate this with Christ already, but what Christ tells us is that these miracles are only for His disciples, i.e., those who follow Him. As such, His teaching/words of life are for them alone (not for the masses to whom He speaks in purposely confusing parables). In fact, He is seen throughout the Gospel telling people to say nothing about Him. He expresses this, knowing that His works will definitely be reported, not because He thinks He will stop people from doing so (God is certainly able to do that if He so desired), but as to teach that what He says and does is only for those who follow Him, and no one else.

Now, having understood that life and the healing of one’s relationship with God and man is granted only to Christ’s disciples, it then becomes imperative that we answer the question, “How do I become a disciple of Christ?”

This is what Mark 7–8 highlight, even though the same appears throughout the Gospel. Chapter 7 begins with the Pharisees, who believe that by ordering their external lives in what they deem to be an acceptable manner, begin a dispute with Christ for not making His disciples ritually wash their hands before they eat. Christ then proceeds to rebuke them by telling them that their real problem isn’t the arrangement of their external lives, but their rebellion toward the Word of God. He, then, tells these people, people who think they are good people who are good enough to be acceptable to God, that they are not acceptable, but in fact, evil men. In vv. 14–23, Christ tells His disciples that no food that goes into their mouths can make them unclean (i.e., unacceptable to God), but what comes from within the man is what makes him unacceptable to God. In vv. 21–23, the text states:

And He was saying, "That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man.  "For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting [and] wickedness, [as well as] deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride [and] foolishness. "All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man."

In other words, you’re not good people. You’re not acceptable to God, even though you think you are because you’re an upright citizen and a religious/spiritual person. You can perform whatever ritual you want, but the problem is inside of you; and that problem is you.

Now, many will not accept this message, and that is what makes the rest of the chapter so brilliant. What the Lord Jesus says here is followed by numerous instances of miracles that He performs, and it is through the narration of these miracles that we begin to understand how we must become a disciple of Christ and receive our own life-giving miracle.

The first miracle performed is for a Syro-Phoenician woman, a Gentile. If you’re not aware, Christ’s ministry on earth was reserved only for His people, the Jews. The gospel comes to them first, but of course, it really comes to those who are His true disciples within that larger group. And in comes this unclean woman asking Him to rid her daughter of an unclean spirit. Notice that this is not your father’s “Mr. Rogers, everybody’s welcome to the neighborhood” Jesus.

And He was saying to her, "Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs."

Now, if you came to someone for help, and they told you, No, and called you a “dog,” I’m guessing you might be a little offended by that. Even moreso, if you were a first century Palestinian woman, you would understand that designation as saying that you were essentially “trailer trash,” and not worthy to even be in God’s presence. So, seeking to lift yourself back up from such a humiliation, you would likely just yell and scream and give Christ a piece of your mind to make yourself feel better by tearing Him down. But herein is the lesson. The woman doesn’t do that. She actually, in agreement, acknowledges that she is a dog and begs for Christ to have mercy on her. Now, this is the response He wanted from her. He wanted her humility to see that she was not acceptable as she was, and come to Him acknowledging such. Once she did, He says to her, “"Because of this answer go; the demon has gone out of your daughter” (v. 29) “And going back to her home,” verse 30 says, “she found the child lying on the bed, the demon having left.”

What we have just witnessed here is that one who wishes to become a disciple of Christ cannot ignore His teaching that he or she is not acceptable to God as they are, and that God considers them unclean and unworthy of His presence. It is only through this acknowledgement that one becomes a disciple of Christ, because one will not/cannot, receive the gospel fully without it. In other words, there is no point in just making disciples out of prideful people who already feel that they are acceptable to God, as they cannot submit themselves to Christ as Lord and the necessity of His work on the cross on their behalf in order to be saved. This can only happen through humiliation, and humiliation is unpleasant. The road to salvation, then, is through repentance, but before one can repent, he or she must be rebuked from thinking that he or she is acceptable before God, and it is that rebuke, that proclamation that one is a dog and unworthy to ever be considered by God as someone for whom the miracle of eternal life should be performed, that is either received as a shameful truth or rejected as an offensive lie. The road to Christ must come through the gates of spiritual humility. It is the poor in spirit who will inherit the kingdom of God, not the ones who think they belong there whether they have decided to follow Christ or not.

Mark continues to show this pattern of the unpleasant humiliation that precedes life and exaltation as one of Christ’s disciples. He does by showing Christ putting His fingers in a deaf and mute man’s ears and spitting, touching his tongue with His spit. Mark also shows Christ rubbing spit in a blind man’s eyes.

If someone spit on you today, you would take major offense; but it was even worse in Christ’s day. Spitting on someone is the ultimate act of disfavor. It is done when the one who spits wants to communicate the complete and utter rejection of another. Hence, they spit on Christ at His crucifixion. It is the ultimate rejection of the person, and as such, it is the ultimate humiliation of that person. Being spat upon is offensive. Being told you are a dog is offensive. Being told you are evil and not acceptable to God is offensive, that is, if you believe otherwise. But these men receive what would otherwise be offensive, what is unpleasant, nonetheless, and when they do, they hear, speak, and see, i.e., they are given new life, they are healed as a result.

Mark also brings the feeding of the crowds in at this point in order to show that it is Christ, who is God (the One who gave manna in the wilderness and saved the lives of His people when they followed Him), who alone has the power to give life and provide what is needed for true life. He thus does the impossible by producing more food out of a little food, i.e., He takes life and makes life from it, but life must be there in the first place, and that must come through the humility of repentance and the denial of the idea that one is acceptable enough to be saved “as is.”

The pericope ends with Christ’s statements concerning what it means to be a disciple, and that only a true disciple will receive life from Him by letting go of the self, letting my pride die, letting my dreams die, letting all that I am be humiliated as Christ tells me that I am unacceptable to God, and will not be saved without following Him. So I leave you with His words, of which should never be viewed as shameful in a wicked generation that postures itself as good.

And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it. "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? "For what will a man give in exchange for his soul? "For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels."

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