So, He Saved Them

23 In the fifteenth year of Amaziah the son of Joash, king of Judah, Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, began to reign in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years. 24 And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. He did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin. 25 He restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher. 26 For the Lord saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter, for there was none left, bond or free, and there was none to help Israel. 27 But the Lord had not said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, so he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash.

28 Now the rest of the acts of Jeroboam and all that he did, and his might, how he fought, and how he restored Damascus and Hamath to Judah in Israel, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel? 29 And Jeroboam slept with his fathers, the kings of Israel, and Zechariah his son reigned in his place. 2 Kings 14:23-29 ESV

Sometime during the reign of King Jehoash of Judah, the other King Jehoash of Israel made his son, Jeroboam II, his co-regent. He was named after the very first king who ruled over the northern kingdom after God had divided the nation of Israel in half. This division of Solomon’s kingdom was done as a punishment for his idolatry and apostasy. In the latter years of his reign, Solomon had begun to worship the false gods of his many foreign wives.

So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done. Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. And so he did for all his foreign wives, who made offerings and sacrificed to their gods. 1 Kings 11:6-8 ESV

As punishment for Solomon’s unfaithfulness, God raised up Jeroboam and placed him over the ten northern tribes of Israel. But Jeroboam proved to be just as unfaithful as Solomon. One of his first official acts as king was to establish his own religion, complete with golden calf idols erected in the cities of Dan and Bethel. He even created his own priesthood and sacrificial system so that the ten northern tribes would have no reason to go to Jerusalem to worship at the temple of Yahweh.

And it reveals a lot about the character of King Jehoash of Israel that he chose to name his son after this man. But the author seems to assure his readers that this decision was fitting because Jeroboam II lived up to the reputation of his infamous predecessor.

And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. He did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin. – 2 Kings 14:24 ESV

At his father’s death, Jeroboam II transitioned from his position as co-regent to that of king over all the northern tribes, a title he would hold for 41 years. He would become the longest-reigning king in the history of Israel, outlasting the monarchy of King Jehoash of Judah and that of his son, Amaziah. But other than the note describing the sinful disposition of Jeroboam’s reign, the author provides few other details about his accomplishments. There is a brief mention of his expansion of the territorial boundaries of Israel but it would appear that this was the work of God and not Jeroboam.

Verse 25 mentions the name of Jonah. He was one of three prophets, including Hosea and Amos, who ministered to the ten northern tribes of Israel. This is the same Jonah who would later receive a divine commission from God to call the pagan people of Ninevah to repentance (Jonah 1:1-2). But long before Jonah was sent to the Assyrians, his responsibility was to act as God’s spokesman to the kings and the people of Israel. It would appear from the text that Jonah gave King Jeroboam a word from Yahweh, commanding him to expand the borders of Israel, and the king obeyed.

He restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher. – 2 Kings 14:25 ESV

By faithfully fulfilling this divine mandate, Jeroboam II was able to restore the borders of Israel close to where they had been during the reign of King Solomon. While Jeroboam was anything but a godly king, he did prove to be an accomplished leader who helped reestablish Israel’s power and prominence. In fact, both the northern and southern kingdoms would experience unprecedented prosperity during this period of time. This fact seems difficult to reconcile when you consider that both kingdoms were being ruled over by godless kings who promoted idolatry and apostasy. Yet, the author reveals that God was at work, behind the scenes, protecting and preserving His people.

the Lord had not said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, so he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash. – 2 Kings 14:27 ESV

God had made a covenant commitment to preserve His people. Despite their repeated demonstrations of disobedience and unfaithfulness, He had never allowed them to suffer the full and well-deserved consequences of their sin. He had stepped in and rescued them time and time again. Long before they ever entered the land of Canaan or established themselves as a nation, God had clearly communicated His expectations to them.

If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully keep all his commands that I am giving you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the world. You will experience all these blessings if you obey the Lord your God… – Deuteronomy 28:1-2 NLT

Then God outlined all the blessings they could expect if they lived in obedience to His will. But He had also warned them that disobedience would bring curses.

But if you refuse to listen to the Lord your God and do not obey all the commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come and overwhelm you… – Deuteronomy 28:15 NLT

The list of potential curses that followed was intense and terrifying and ended with the warning: “The Lord will exile you and your king to a nation unknown to you and your ancestors. There in exile you will worship gods of wood and stone! You will become an object of horror, ridicule, and mockery among all the nations to which the Lord sends you[ (Deuteronomy 28:36-37 NLT).

There would be dire and devastating consequences should they choose to disobey. But as the author of 2 Kings reveals, “the Lord had not said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven” (2 Kings 14:27 ESV). While God had warned of destruction and even eventual deportation, He had never spoken of Israel’s obliteration. He was committed to keeping the promise He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And it was Jacob whom God had renamed Israel.

“Your name is Jacob, but you will not be called Jacob any longer. From now on your name will be Israel.” So God renamed him Israel.

Then God said, “I am El-Shaddai—‘God Almighty.’ Be fruitful and multiply. You will become a great nation, even many nations. Kings will be among your descendants! And I will give you the land I once gave to Abraham and Isaac. Yes, I will give it to you and your descendants after you.” – Genesis 35:10-12 NLT

This scene took place in Bethel, and it just so happens that Bethel became one of the towns in which the original Jeroboam set up a golden calf idol. The very place where God had promised to make of Jacob (Israel) a great nation, Jeroboam I had erected an idol that would lead the people away from Yahweh. He had promoted disobedience and, in doing so, had brought upon the people of Israel the curses of God.  And yet, the author of 2 Kings reveals that God chose to show His rebellious people compassion.

…the Lord saw the bitter suffering of everyone in Israel, and that there was no one in Israel, slave or free, to help them. – 2 Kings 14:26 NLT

Yes, they were rebellious. The people of Israel had forsaken Him time and time again. But God looked on His chosen people and saw them as helpless and hopeless. They had no one to save them. Their kings had proven themselves unwilling and incapable of providing godly leadership. Jeroboam II was no different than his namesake. And yet, God chose to use this godless king to protect His chosen people.

…because the Lord had not said he would blot out the name of Israel completely, he used Jeroboam II, the son of Jehoash, to save them. – 2 Kings 14:27 NLT

God was preserving His people. Not because they deserved it, but because He had a plan that required their continued existence. Hundreds of years earlier, God had made a promise to the patriarch, Abraham:

“I will certainly bless you. I will multiply your descendants beyond number, like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will conquer the cities of their enemies. And through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed—all because you have obeyed me.” – Genesis 22:17-18 NLT

God had made a commitment to bless the nations of the earth through Abraham’s descendants. Yet, as we have seen, the seed of Abraham had proven to be anything but a blessing. They had brought shame to the name of God through their repeated demonstrations of unfaithfulness. But God was choosing to preserve them because He had a plan in place that would bring about the blessing of the nations. And He would do it through the “seed” of Abraham. And the apostle Paul tells us exactly how God fulfilled that promise.

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. – Galatians 3:16 NLT

God preserved the Israelites so that Jesus, who was born a descendant of Abraham, might become the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise to bless the nations. And Paul goes on to describe how God’s commitment to protect and preserve the nation of Israel has impacted all the nations of the earth.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. – Galatians 3:28-29 NLT

All along the way, God had been watching out for His chosen people because He had set them apart for a reason. They were to be the conduit through which He brought the blessing of salvation to a lost and dying world. And that is why, even after He eventually sent them into exile in Babylon, God restored them to the land of promise.

“I myself will tend my sheep and give them a place to lie down in peace, says the Sovereign Lord. I will search for my lost ones who strayed away, and I will bring them safely home again. I will bandage the injured and strengthen the weak. But I will destroy those who are fat and powerful. I will feed them, yes—feed them justice!” – Ezekiel 34:15-16 NLT

God was faithful to keep His promise and preserve His people so that, one day, He might send His Son as the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Christ, the King of Israel

16 And the soldiers led him away inside the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters), and they called together the whole battalion.17 And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. 18 And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 19 And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. 20 And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him. 

21 And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. 22 And they brought him to the place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull). 23 And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. 24 And they crucified him and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. 25 And it was the third hour when they crucified him. 26 And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” 27 And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. 29 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, 30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!” 31 So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32 Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him. Mark 15:16-32 ESV

Pilate reluctantly gave in to the pressure of the mob that had gathered outside his palace that morning. These people, who had been whipped into a frenzy by the members of the Sanhedrin, were demanding that Jesus be crucified. And they would settle for nothing less.

But Pilate knew that this entire situation was nothing more than a case of envy. He sensed that Jesus was innocent of any wrongdoing and that the Jewish religious leaders were trying to eliminate Him because they were jealous of His popularity. But any attempt he made to bring an end to this charade was met with derision and further demands for Jesus’ crucifixion. So, finally, Pilate gave in to the growing pressure, but not before absolving himself of any responsibility for the death of this innocent man.

So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” – Matthew 27:24 ESV

With the crowds cheering his decision, Pilate ordered Jesus to be scourged and then turned and walked away. As the people looked on, Jesus was stripped of His garment and subjected to the excruciatingly painful penalty of scourging. The victim’s hands were tied above His head to a pole, and then a Roman soldier would use a leather whip, called a flagrum or flagellum, and deliver a series of lashes across the victim’s exposed back. This whip was made of two or three leather strips knotted with pieces of bone and metal, and with each lash, it produced unbearable pain as it ripped open the flesh.

The violence Jesus endured should not be overlooked or dismissed. It was all part of God’s plan of redemption. The innocent Lamb of God was forced to endure the penalty for our sins. He had done nothing deserving of such treatment. But the prophet Isaiah described the pain Jesus would have to endure as the sacrificial Lamb of God.

he was pierced for our rebellion,
    crushed for our sins.
He was beaten so we could be whole.
    He was whipped so we could be healed. – Isaiah 53:7 NLT

To the Roman guards, Jesus was just another Hebrew condemned to death. But they were intrigued by the nature of the charges brought against Him. This man had been accused of being the King of the Jews. And as they took in the sight of this disheveled and unimpressive Jew standing before them, they unleashed their shared hatred for the Hebrew people upon Him.

they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” – Mark 15:17-18 ESV

Driven by their loathing of the Jews, these hardened soldiers mercilessly ridiculed Jesus, striking Him in the head with a reed, spitting in His face, and kneeling before Him in mock adulation. These foul-mouthed and sin-enslaved soldiers treated the King of kings and Lord of lords with sneering cynicism. And when they had finally grown tired of their mockery, they removed the purple robe and had Jesus put back on His outer garment. Then they led Him to the place of crucifixion.

It was common practice for the Romans to force the condemned to carry the crossbeam or patibulum for their own cross to the place of crucifixion. But it seems that Jesus, because of loss of blood or weakness, was unable to do bear the weight of this burden. So, an innocent bystander was conscripted from the crowd and forced to carry Jesus’ cross. Mark indicates that the man was named Simon of Cyrene. He was just one of the many foreign pilgrims who were in Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover. And yet, this unknown man was given the privilege of bearing the cross of the Son of God. In doing so, he unwittingly demonstrated the words of Jesus.

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” – Matthew 16:24 ESV

Once they arrived at the crucifixion site, a place called Golgotha, Jesus was stripped of His garments and nailed to the cross. He was offered wine mixed with myrrh, a concoction designed to numb the senses and alleviate pain, allowing the victim to endure the suffering of crucifixion for an extended period of time. But Jesus rejected this narcotic elixir, ensuring that He would have full access to His cognitive abilities while undergoing this horrific experience.

And Mark notes that as Jesus was hanging on the cross, the soldiers gambled over his outer garment. This entire scene is a visual fulfillment of Psalm 22, a Messianic psalm written by King David.

I am a worm and not a man.
    I am scorned and despised by all!
Everyone who sees me mocks me.
    They sneer and shake their heads, saying,
 “Is this the one who relies on the Lord?
    Then let the Lord save him!
If the Lord loves him so much,
    let the Lord rescue him!” – Psalm 22:6-8 NLT

My enemies surround me like a pack of dogs;
    an evil gang closes in on me.
    They have pierced my hands and feet.
I can count all my bones.
    My enemies stare at me and gloat.
They divide my garments among themselves
    and throw dice for my clothing. – Psalm 21:16-18 NLT

Jesus was fulfilling every aspect of Old Testament prophecy, down to the smallest detail. And even the Roman soldiers unknowingly played a significant role in acting out the divine drama that God had pre-ordained.

And as Jesus hung on the cross and the soldiers cast dice for HIs garment, a sign placed above His head declared the nature of His crime. Placed there by order of Pilate, the wooden plaque read: “The King of the Jews.”

Jesus was being put to death for being exactly who He had claimed to be. He had committed no crime but instead was being sacrificed to pay for the sins of others. The King was dying on behalf of His own people. He was giving His life so that they might receive new life in Him. David went on to describe the sacrificial and substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death.

Praise the Lord, all you who fear him!
    Honor him, all you descendants of Jacob!
    Show him reverence, all you descendants of Israel!
For he has not ignored or belittled the suffering of the needy.
    He has not turned his back on them,
    but has listened to their cries for help. – Psalm 22:23-24 NLT

But sadly, as Jesus hung dying on the cross, He did not hear shouts of praise or adoration. Instead, He heard the derisive cries of those who had come to witness His death.

“Ha! Look at you now!” they yelled at him. “You said you were going to destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. Well then, save yourself and come down from the cross!” – Mark 15:29-30 NLT

Even the members of Sanhedrin took the opportunity to gloat over Jesus’ predicament, calling out, “He saved others…but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this King of Israel, come down from the cross so we can see it and believe him!” (Mark 15:31-32 NLT).

Jesus could have come down from the cross. As the Son of God, He had the power to put a stop to the proceedings and call down a host of angels from heaven to wreak vengeance upon His accusers and executioners. But Jesus refused to do so because it would have been in violation of God’s will. It wasn’t that He couldn’t do it, but that He wouldn’t. He was out to deliver victory, not vengeance. He was determined to fulfill His Father’s will, not avoid it. He had come to give life, not take it.

And as Jesus fulfilled the will of His Father, He was mocked by the religious leaders, soldiers, bystanders, and even the two criminals being crucified on either side of Him. The very sinners for whom He was offering His life were ridiculing His efforts on their behalf. They mocked the Messiah. They sarcastically belittled the Savior. And yet He willingly remained on the cross, the Lamb for sinners slain. He was committed to carrying out His mission so that sinners might be restored to a right relationship with His Heavenly Father.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Awake and Waiting

24 “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

32 “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. 35 Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— 36 lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.” Mark 13:24-37 ESV

Almost the entire focus of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse is the far-distant future. He is telling His disciples about events that will take place long after they are gone. But He uses language that conveys a sense of anticipation, almost as if these things could happen tomorrow. In a sense, He is trying to help them understand that, in just a few days, they will be eyewitnesses to one of the most significant parts of God’s grand redemptive plan.

With all the emphasis on things to come, it is easy to forget that Jesus is just days away from His own death. But that singular event will inaugurate a new age. With His death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus will usher in the church age. His return to His Father’s side will make possible the coming of the Holy Spirit. And on the day of Pentecost, His followers will receive the “power from on high” that He promised, transforming them into bold and powerful ambassadors of the Gospel. And their efforts will help give birth to the church. And for generations, the church will grow and prosper, spreading throughout the world and impacting every tribe, nation, and tongue. But one day, Jesus will return for His bride, the church, and take them to be with Him in heaven. And with the removal of all believers from the face of the earth, the stage will be set for the day of Tribulation, a seven-year-long period of divine judgment upon the earth and its inhabitants. And Jesus has warned that “in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be” (Mark 14:19 ESV).

Yet, even in those dark days, God will continue to redeem the lost, beginning with 144,000 Jews that will represent every one of the 12 tribes of Israel (Revelations 7:4). And they will become witnesses to the world, resulting in the salvation of countless individuals from every people group on the planet. And many of those believers will become martyrs, suffering death at the hand of Antichrist. But, according to God’s divine plan, the seven-years of the Tribulation will finally come to an end. And Jesus indicates that the end will be marked by cosmic disturbances.

“…the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,  and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” – Mark 13:24-25 ESV

These dramatic celestial displays will act as signs of another significant feature of God’s redemptive plan: The return of His Son.

“And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” – Mark 13:26-27 ESV

This will be the long-awaited Second Coming of Jesus. Unlike His first advent, when Jesus came to earth in the form of a helpless baby, this time He will come as a mighty warrior and a conquering King.

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. – Revelation 19:11-16 ESV

Jesus will return to earth in order to wage war against all the forces of evil on the earth. He will gather all His saints, both living and dead. And He will defeat the forces of Satan, capturing and imprisoning Antichrist and his associates (Revelation 19:19-21). And then Jesus will set up His earthly Kingdom, ruling from His throne in Jerusalem for a period of 1,000 years (Revelation 20:4-6).

All of these amazing events are included in the future events Jesus is describing to His disciples. It is as if He is giving them a highly condensed preview of all that is going to take place in the days ahead, and it will begin with His own death in Jerusalem.

So, Jesus tells them, “when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates” (Mark 13:29 ESV). He is not suggesting that they be around when these events take place. He is simply suggesting that before the end comes, there will be ample signs that will make its arrival clear. Like a fig tree that blooms and presages the arrival of summer, the various stages of God’s redemptive plan will have warning signs.

His referral to “this generation” in verse 30, seems to be an indication that the disciples represent a new dispensation or age among mankind. They will become the firstfruits of those who make up the church age. But they will also represent all those who live after the cross and who face the choice between salvation through faith in Christ alone or the condemnation and death that come through disbelief.

“This generation” includes all those who will witness Christ’s ascension and all those who will see His second coming. They and the world they inhabit will not be destroyed until all these things take place. Believers and unbelievers will inhabit this planet until the bitter end. And Jesus assures His disciples that they can trust His words. His word will prove more lasting and permanent than the universe itself.

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” – Mark 13;31 ESV

But while all that Jesus has told them will take place, it will be according to the secret plans of God. No one knows the timing of God’s plan, not even Jesus Himself. That’s why Jesus told His followers, “Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come” (Mark 13:33 ESV). Jesus wanted them to live with a sense of urgency, with their eyes focused on the fulfillment of His mission. Jesus had not come just to die and rise again. He had come so that He might come again. His second coming will be the final act in God’s grand play of redemption and restoration. That is why Paul told the believers living in Philippi, “But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior” (Philippians 3:20 NLT).

Jesus wanted His disciples to live with a sense of urgency and expectancy. So, He told them to “Be on guard, keep awake” (Mark 13:33 ESV). There is no room for complacency or laziness among God’s people. We are to live as if His Son’s return could take place at any moment. We are part of that “generation” that “will not pass away until all these things take place.” We may not live long enough to see any of these things take place, but we are to live with confident assurance that they will. And we are to eagerly wait for Him to return as our Savior.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Render Unto God

13 And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. 14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” 15 But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him. Mark 12:13-17 ESV

Jesus’ ransacking of the temple courtyard had caused quite a stir. And, as a result, His already strained relationship with the Jewish religious leaders took a dramatic turn for the worse. These men questioned His authority as well as His sanity, having earlier claimed that Jesus was possessed by a demon and in league with Satan. But when they met Him face to face, they found that He was anything but crazy. Jesus proved to be a formidable debater who, although an educated Rabbi from Nazareth, could stand toe-to-toe with the best and brightest members of the highly trained Sanhedrin. These professional religious scholars and experts in the Mosaic law found Jesus to be no pushover. And in today’s passage, we find the Sanhedrin taking a tag-team approach, sending wave after wave of their best thinkers to do mental battle with Jesus.

In chapter 11, Mark records the first onslaught. He described the chief priests, scribes, and elders confronting Jesus in the Courtyard of the Gentiles. But their attempt to trap Jesus didn’t turn out so well. Which led the Sanhedrin to send another team made up of Pharisees and Herodians. Now, this was a particularly strange alliance because these two groups were normally diametrically opposed. The Pharisees were a highly conservative religious sect, while the Herodians were essentially a political party that, as their name suggests, supported Herod Antipas, the Roman puppet king of Israel. To the Pharisees, the Herodians were sell-outs, whose support of Herod and willing tolerance of Roman rule greatly compromised Jewish independence.

Yet, these two opposing groups found unity in their shared hatred for Jesus. So, they made an unholy alliance, joining forces in an effort to trap Jesus. And Luke adds that these “spies” were driven by a desire to find condemning evidence that would result in Jesus’ arrest.

The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. – Luke 20:19-20 ESV

As soon as the Pharisees and Herodians begin their questioning of Jesus, it becomes clear why the Sanhedrin had decided to pair these two groups together. The entire scene is a set-up that begins with false flattery. They try to lower Jesus’ defenses by attempting to stroke His ego.

“Teacher,” they said, “we know how honest you are. You are impartial and don’t play favorites. You teach the way of God truthfully. Now tell us—is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay them, or shouldn’t we?” – Mark 12:14-15 NLT

Their reputation as enemies was well known, and that was part of their scheme. They led Jesus to believe that they had come to Him for help in settling a dispute. The issue was the Roman poll tax. This was an annual tax imposed upon the Jews by the Romans that the Pharisees found in violation of their own laws concerning the sabbatical year. This was a head-tax that every Jew was required to pay every year, with no break during the seventh or sabbatical year. To the religiously-minded Pharisees, this tax was unacceptable. But to the Herodians, who supported the Roman government, it was a cost they were willing to pay because it helped maintain the peace.

But this entire “debate” was a ploy. The Pharisees must have assumed that Jesus was conservatively minded, just as they were, and would side with them. If He did, this would provide the Herodians with more than enough evidence to accuse Him of fomenting revolution against the Roman government. Their ultimate goal was to get Him in trouble with the civil authorities.

But “Jesus saw through their hypocrisy and said, ‘Why are you trying to trap me?’” (Mark 12:15 NLT). He was not fooled for a second. Their motives were painfully transparent, and Jesus refused to step into their poorly conceived trap. Instead, He was that they show Him a denarius, which was a Roman-minted coin. Jesus was about to turn their question regarding taxation into a lesson on veneration.

When they presented Him with the coin, Jesus asked a simple question: “Whose picture and title are stamped on it?” (Mark 12:16 NLT). And they quickly responded, “Caesar.” And what Jesus said next would leave them in a state of amazement.

“Well, then,” Jesus said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” – Mark 12:17 NLT

This had not been what they expected to hear. With His response, Jesus neither favored nor opposed the poll tax. Instead, He turned the whole debate into a lesson on loyalty and spiritual faithfulness. The Herodians placed a high priority on keeping the law of the Romans. The Pharisees countered that the laws of God had greater precedence than those of men. But Jesus was driving home the point that both groups were guilty of worshiping the wrong thing.

“The denarius of Tiberius portrayed the emperor as the semi-divine son of the god Augustus and the goddess Livia and bore the (abbreviated) inscription ‘Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus’ on the obverse and ‘Pontifex Maximus’ on the reverse. Both the representations and the inscriptions were rooted in the imperial cult and constituted a claim to divine honors.” – Lane, William L. The Gospel According to Mark. New International Commentary on the New Testament

For Jesus, this had nothing to do with taxation or Roman occupation. It had to do with the focus of the heart. Both of these groups were guilty of false worship. In a sense, the Herodians worshiped Caesar because they believed he provided them with protection and allowed them to enjoy their relative power and freedom. On the other hand, the Pharisees worshiped their oral and written laws, treating them with greater veneration than the One who had originally given them to Moses.

In a sense, Caesar required coins that bore his image as payment for services rendered. His troops kept the peace. His government provided social order and stability. And those who benefited from these amenities were expected to pay for them.

Jesus had no problem with rendering unto Caesar what belonged to him. The coins bore his image, so they were rightfully his. But mankind bears the image of God and, therefore, rightfully belongs to Him. That is why Jesus said, “give to God what belongs to God.”

God doesn’t need our money. He doesn’t even need our feeble attempts at religious rule-keeping and pharisaical posturing. Jesus knew that the Pharisees were guilty of going through the motions and only pretending to revere and worship God.

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’” – Matthew 15:7-8 NLT

In a sense, Jesus is taking the conversation back to the issue of authority. Because of his position and power, Caesar had every right to demand a tax from the people over whom he ruled. But God also had the authority to demand worship from those whom He had made. Every man and woman on the planet bore the Imago Dei (the image of God) and were expected to give God what rightfully belonged to Him: Their lives and their worship.

Yet, as the apostle Paul discloses, even since the fall, mankind has repeatedly refused to render unto God what is rightfully His.

Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. – Romans 1:21-23 NLT

And for Jesus, the issue was the failure of the religious leaders to honor Him for who He was – the Son of God and the Savior of the world. To the Herodians, Caesar was like a god, worthy of their veneration and willing subjugation. And the Pharisees had made their religion their god,  placing all their hope in the rules and regulations that governed daily life, and provided any hope they had of salvation. But both had failed to recognize that God was in their midst. He had come to dwell with them. And all He asked was that they give Him what was due Him: Their lives and allegiance.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Can’t You See?

46 And they came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. 47 And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.” 50 And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 And Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.” 52 And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way. Mark 10:46-52 ESV

Jesus and the disciples continued their journey to Jerusalem. James and John must have been a bit demoralized because of the response they had received from Jesus. They had come to Him requesting that He grant them the right to sit on His right and His left in His new Kingdom. They were hoping for positions of power in His royal administration, but instead, they had received a lecture on servanthood. He had basically told them that the path to glory was through humility and sacrifice. Not exactly what they had hoped to hear.

The disciples were having a difficult time understanding all that Jesus was trying to tell them. They were suffering from spiritual blindness, an incapacity to comprehend all that was taking place around them. It seems that no matter what Jesus said or did, their spiritual eyesight remained darkened by doubt and false perceptions. And what happens next is meant to drive home their need for enlightenment.

As they continue they make their way through Jericho, Jesus and the 12 disciples encounter a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. Both Matthew and Luke provide their versions of the same event, but with slightly different details. Mark is the only one of the three who makes note of the beggar’s name, even telling us who his father was. Matthew reports that there were two blind beggars, while Mark and Luke only mention one. But the common link between each of their versions of this story is that it took place not long after Jesus had revealed for the third time that He was going to Jerusalem to die.

“Listen, we’re going up to Jerusalem, where all the predictions of the prophets concerning the Son of Man will come true. He will be handed over to the Romans, and he will be mocked, treated shamefully, and spit upon. They will flog him with a whip and kill him, but on the third day he will rise again.” – Luke 18:31-33 NLT

And all three gospel authors make note that the disciples were having a difficult time comprehending the significance of Jesus’ announcement.

But they didn’t understand any of this. The significance of his words was hidden from them, and they failed to grasp what he was talking about. – Luke 18:34 NLT

This was not the first time the disciples had struggled to understand the words of Jesus. Back in chapter 8, Mark records when tried to warn them about the leaven of the Pharisees. But while Jesus was talking about the pervasive and dangerous nature of the Pharisees’ teaching, the disciples misunderstood and thought He was upset with them because they had failed to bring bread. Which led Jesus to rebuke them for their hardness of heart.

“Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” –Mark 8:17-19 ESV

And on that occasion, Jesus had followed up their display of spiritual blindness with a miracle of healing. He just so happened to meet met a blind man in the town of Bethsaida, and Jesus healed him.

…he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. – Mark 8:25 ESV

Now, as Jesus entered Jericho, He has another “chance” encounter with yet another blind man. This is no mere coincidence. It is a divinely timed opportunity designed to provide the disciples with one more living object lesson. And almost as if to prove that this was a real story involving a real individual, Mark provides us with the man’s name: “Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus” (Mark 10:46 ESV). If any of Mark’s readers ever passed through Jericho, they could look the man up and hear his story firsthand.

But Bartimaeus, upon hearing that Jesus had come to Jericho, began to cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:47 ESV). This physically blind man was able to “see” something about Jesus that many sighted individuals had failed to comprehend. He calls Jesus the Son of David, acknowledging His royal lineage and verifying His legal right to inherit the kingdom of His forefathers. The title “Son of David” was used to refer to the coming Messiah. This long-anticipated Savior of the nation of Israel was to be a descendant of King David, fulfilling the promise given to David by God.

“When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.…And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.”2 Samuel 7:12-13, 16 ESV

While this prophecy was partially fulfilled with the reign of Solomon, his kingdom was far from everlasting. It ended in disappointment, as Solomon failed to remain faithful to God, worshiping the false gods of his many wives and concubines So, after Solomon’s death, God split the kingdom in two. And the vast majority of the kings who reigned over these two kingdoms would prove to be unfaithful as well. Eventually, God would punish both kingdoms by causing their defeat at the hands of their enemies and sending their people into exile.

But this blind man was able to see Jesus for who He really was. He understood Him to be the Messiah of Israel, the Son of David, and the rightful heir to the royal throne. And he cried out, begging that Jesus might show him mercy. But Mark records that “many rebuked him, telling him to be silent” (Mark 10:48 ESV). Luke indicates that it was “those who were in front” who tried to silence him, and it’s likely that this group included some of the disciples. I can imagine Peter being one of the first to try and muzzle this poor beggar. After all, Peter had been the one whom Jesus had blessed when He had rightfully confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 ESV). Peter wasn’t about to share his glory with some disheveled and disabled beggar living in the middle of nowhere.

But Bartimaeus refused to be silenced. As they tried to stifle his cries, he simply called out all the louder. He would not allow this opportunity to pass him by. The Messiah was nearby and he longed to have his sight restored. So, when Jesus called for Bartimaeus, he responded as quickly as he could, despite his disability. Then Jesus asked the blind man appears to be a rather unnecessary question: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51 ESV).

Jesus did not ask this question because He was unaware of the nature of the man’s problem. He was providing Bartimaeus with an opportunity to express his desire and, by doing so, expose his faith. And Bartimaeus did not disappoint.

“Rabbi, let me recover my sight.” – Mark 10:51 ESV

Bartimaeus addressed Jesus as rhabbouni, which means “Lord and master.” He saw Jesus as the one who could restore his physical blindness. He longed to be able to see again and he knew that Jesus was his only hope. And Jesus did exactly what the man had hoped He would do. But before Jesus healed Bartimaeus, He gave him a command:

Go your way; your faith has made you well.” – Mark 10:52 ESV

The Greek word Mark uses is hypagō, and it means “to depart” or “to go away.” It is the same word Jesus used when speaking to Satan during His temptation in the wilderness. Jesus had told Sata to hypagō – “Be gone, Satan!” (Matthew 4:10 ESV).

Jesus had commanded Satan to leave, and Matthew records that “the devil left him” (Matthew 4:11 ESV). But when Jesus told Bartimaeus to “depart,” he did just the opposite. Mark reports that Bartimaeus “followed him on the way” (Mark 10:52 ESV). He had what he had longed for – the restoration of his sight. And at that point, he was able to go and do whatever he wanted to do. He could see. No longer hampered by blindness, Bartimaeus could have gone anywhere. But he chose to follow Jesus. Just imagine all the distractions that appeared before his eyes. For the first time in a long time, he could see the sun, the trees, and the long-forgotten faces of friends. And yet, when Jesus told him to go, Bartimaeus chose to follow.

Now, consider the disciples. They were also following Jesus to Jerusalem, but somewhat reluctantly. They were not thrilled by Jesus’ reports of what awaited Him in the royal city. They couldn’t see the benefit of going to Jerusalem if it meant that Jesus was to be arrested, tried, and killed. But Bartimaeus, his sight newly restored, got in line behind Jesus and gladly followed the one who had delivered his life from literal darkness.

And you can almost expect to turn to His disciples and ask them again, “Having eyes do you not see?” His journey to Jerusalem was necessary. It was part of God’s divine plan to bring healing to the nations. And in time, the disciples would have their eyes opened as well, allowing them to see the true nature of Jesus’ mission.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” – Luke 4:18-19 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

God of the Impossible

24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Mark 10:24-31 ESV

By this time, the disciples must have begun to regret that they had ever argued over which of them was the greatest. Ever since Jesus had overheard their childish squabble, He had been giving them a non-stop lesson about what it means to be great in the Kingdom of God. And the latest iteration of that lesson had come in the form of a rich young man who had come seeking his rightful inheritance. He wanted to know what was keeping him from enjoying the riches and rewards of eternal life right here, right now. He viewed himself as a good and righteous man who had kept God’s commands, and he believed his wealth was proof of God’s blessings on his life. But he wanted more. He was looking for the ultimate reward of eternal life.

And Jesus confirmed that the man “lacked one thing” (Mark 10:21 ESV). So, He told him to “go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mark 10:21 ESV). In essence, Jesus told the man that he would have to let go of all that he treasured in this life if he wanted to receive the reward of eternal life. And this statement from Jesus should have sounded vaguely familiar to His disciples. They had heard Him say similar in His sermon on the mount more than 3 years earlier.

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. – Matthew 6:19-21 ESV

The young man, unwilling to wait for the treasures of heaven, chose to walk away from Jesus. He ignored the call of Jesus to follow Him and, instead, returned to his life of wealth and earthly greatness. And in doing so, he became an illustration of what Jesus had said in His sermon on the mount.

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. – Matthew 6:24 ESV

Upon the man’s departure, Jesus turned to His disciples and said, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23 ESV). And this statement shocked them. It went against all their preconceived notions regarding righteousness and rewards. They had been raised to believe that was wealth was a sign of God’s blessings. After all, even Abraham, the great patriarch of the Hebrew people had been blessed by God with abundant livestock and great wealth. God had even blessed Joseph, the son of Jacob who had been sold into slavery by his own brothers. He ended up becoming the second-most-powerful man in Egypt. He enjoyed great power and prominence and used both to help protect the Israelites when a famine came to the land of Canaan.

But Jesus was not saying that riches are never a sign of God’s blessing. He was trying to help the disciples to understand that the material and physical blessings God bestows can actually become roadblocks that prevent men from seeking God Himself. The gifts begin to take precedence over the Giver. How easy it is to begin to worship the things of this earth, rather than the God of heaven, who is the giver of all good gifts.

Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father… – James 1:17 NLT

Any earthly blessings we receive in this life should be received with open arms but they are to be held loosely in our hands. We should have the same attitude that Lot had. He had been greatly blessed by God but had everything, including his family, his wealth, and his health. And yet, his response was: “I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be naked when I leave. The LORD gave me what I had, and the LORD has taken it away. Praise the name of the LORD!” (Job 1:21 NLT).

But Jesus knew that His disciples were having a difficult time accepting what He was saying. So, He repeated His words but in a slightly different and even more controversial way.

“Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!” – Mark 10:24 ESV

He addressed the 12 as teknon, the Greek term for a male child. Jesus considered these men as His children. He cared for them deeply and wanted them to understand these deep truths concerning the Kingdom of God. He knew they were struggling and having a difficult time accepting all that He was saying. There was so much they needed to unlearn. Their concept of the Kingdom of God and how to enter it was weighed down by so many misconceptions.

Wealth was not an advantage when it came to gaining entrance into the Kingdom. Not even a good track record of law-keeping could earn someone a spot in God’s Kingdom. Gaining access into the presence of God was difficult and the rich young ruler had failed the test. Which left the disciples feeling a bit concerned for their own prospects for success. And what Jesus told them next didn’t restore their confidence.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” – Mark 10:25 ESV

This little parable did nothing to ease their concerns. In fact, Mark describes them as being “exceedingly astonished” at this news. And it led them to ask, “Then who can be saved?” (Mark 10:26 ESV). You can sense their anxiety. Jesus had begun by describing entrance into the Kingdom of God as difficult. But now, He was declaring it to be impossible. It didn’t take a genius to understand that a camel cannot pass through the eye of a needle. And if it was impossible for a rich man to enter eternity, what hope did they have? The disciples had no visible manifestations of God’s blessings. They weren’t rich, influential, or powerful. In their minds, they had nothing going for them. But they failed to recognize that they were teknon – the children or sons of Jesus. They belonged to Him. They shared an intimate and personal relationship with the Son of God.

But their minds were stuck on the rather ludicrous image of a camel trying to pass through the eye of a sewing needle. It was impossible. And so was their salvation. But Jesus attempted to calm their anxiety by stating, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27 ESV). What Jesus wanted His “sons” to know was that salvation was a work of God, and not based on the efforts of men. Entrance into the Kingdom of God was impossible. There was absolutely nothing man could do to earn his way into God’s favor and guarantee himself a place in the eternal Kingdom to come. And the apostle Paul would make this point repeatedly.

For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. – Romans 3:20 NLT

Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law. – Galatians 2:16 NLT

Well, if the rich were denied access into the Kingdom and law-keeping was not the key that opened the door, what were the disciples to do? They were at a loss as to what it was going to take to secure a place in God’s eternal realm. And it led Peter to blurt out, “See, we have left everything and followed you” (Mark 10:28 ESV). He had taken to heart what Jesus had said to the rich young man:

“…go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven…” – Mark 10:21 ESV

This had led Peter to believe that the key to eternal life must be a life of sacrifice. If the young man had done what Jesus had said, he would have received exactly what he desired. But Peter had missed the point. He had wrongly concluded that Jesus was saying that salvation was reserved for those who were willing to sell out and follow Him. And just like the rich young ruler, Peter wanted Jesus to confirm his suspicions. He was hoping Jesus would declare him to have earned his place in the Kingdom.

And Jesus let Peter know that he was partially right. Salvation did require self-sacrifice. Jesus had already made that reality clear to them.

“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.  If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?” – Matthew 16:24-26 NLT

Following Jesus was going to be costly. Becoming one of His disciples was going to require letting go of the earthly and temporal in order to gain the eternal. And Jesus assured Peter that whatever he had given up in this life would be well worth it. He would be repaid in full and in ways he could never have imagined.

“I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life.” – Mark 10:29-30 NLT

Yes, Peter and his companions had walked away from their careers and families. But Jesus assured them that their sacrifice would come with great blessings. They. would become part of a larger extended family and enjoy careers that would prove far more fulfilling and impactful than the ones they had given up. And the best part would be that any sacrifices they made in this life would be rewarded with eternal life. By making Jesus first and themselves last, they would enjoy eternal life in the Kingdom of God.

And then Jesus added one last lesson on greatness.

“But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” – Mark 10:31 ESV

The scribes and Pharisees, the rich and influential, the powerful and the outwardly righteous were not guaranteed a spot in God’s Kingdom. It was reserved for those who recognized their own inadequacy and their need for a Savior. The healthy don’t think they need a doctor, but the sick do. And while it was impossible for men to enter the Kingdom, with God all things are possible.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Least of These

13 And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” 16 And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them. Mark 10:13-16 ESV

There are times when it appears as if the 12 disciples of Jesus are a few bricks short of a full load. And this is one of them. After reading this passage, it’s difficult not to draw one of two conclusions: Either the disciples are stubborn or simply stupid. They just don’t seem to get it. No matter how many times Jesus addresses an issue with them, the disciples fail to grasp His meaning. Even all His after-class, one-on-twelve tutoring sessions don’t seem to help.

Before looking at the scene recorded in today’s passage, let’s revisit a few earlier exchanges between Jesus and His disciples that are closely related. First, while they were back in Galilee, Jesus had overheard the disciples arguing over which of them was the greatest. This debate came fast on the heels of Jesus’ announcement that He would soon be delivered into the hands of men and be killed (Mark 9:31). So, immediately after hearing Jesus announce that He was going to lay down His life, they had gotten into a heated argument over which of them was the greatest. This led Jesus to give them an object lesson.

And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” – Mark 9:36-37 ESV

Jesus used this small, seemingly insignificant child to drive home an important point. With the pride-filled disciples gathered around Him, Jesus stood in the midst of them holding this unnamed child in His arms. He placed the one with the least significance in the place of greatest prominence. The child had done nothing to earn this special favor extended to Him by Jesus. He was not powerful, impressive, gifted, or even capable of repaying Jesus for His kindness. But the child was trusting and willing to place his full confidence in Jesus.

Yet, immediately after witnessing this living object lesson, John had chosen to bring up what he believed to be a more pressing matter. He reported that there was an unnamed individual who had been casting out demons in Jesus’ name. The discovery of this unidentified competitor had bothered the disciples enough that they had repeatedly tried to issue him cease-and-desist orders. But their efforts had failed. And much to John’s dismay, rather than seeking to reprimand this rogue exorcist, Jesus rebuked His own disciples.

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. – Mark 9:42 ESV

The Greek word Mark used is mikros, which means “small” or “least.” Jesus seems to be referring to this unknown exorcist as one of His children. This man, while not one of the 12 disciples, was casting out demons in the name of Jesus. He was performing the same good deed that Jesus had commissioned His disciples to do. That’s why Jesus John, “Don’t stop him!…No one who performs a miracle in my name will soon be able to speak evil of me. Anyone who is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:39 NLT). This man was on their side. 

Yet Jesus refers to him as one of the “least.” He was so insignificant that the disciples didn’t even know his name. But he was important to Jesus. 

This brings us back to the scene taking place in chapter 10. Jesus and His disciples are back in the region of Perea, just east of Judea on the other side of the Jordan River. And Mark opened this chapter by indicating that Jesus’ arrival in the region had attracted the usual large crowds. While many hoped to see Jesus perform a miracle, others had come out of curiosity because Jesus was a 1st-Century celebrity. But Mark indicates that some “were bringing children to him that he might touch them” (Mark 10:13 ESV). Evidently, parents were bringing their young children to Jesus so that He might bless them. But Mark states that “the disciples rebuked them” (Mark 9:13 ESV). These men took it upon themselves to restrict their access to Jesus. They wrongly assumed that they had the authority to determine who was worthy to come into Jesus’ presence. And this whole scene makes even more sense when you consider Luke’s account. He provides some essential details that make the actions of the disciples even more egregious.

Luke records a parable that Jesus told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9 ESV). In this parable, “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” (Luke 18:10 ESV). The Pharisee stood before God, and in a blatant display of self-promotion, bragged about his superior righteousness as evidenced by his unparalleled fasting and tithing. But the other man stood before God, eyes lowered, declaring his abject state of sinfulness and desperate need for mercy. And then Jesus said, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14 ESV).

Superiority and inferiority. Pride and humility. Greatness and weakness. This parable set up the arrival of the parents with their children. And it explains why Jesus became so indignant with His disciples and demanded, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14 ESV). These little ones were being brought to Jesus by their parents. Too young to come on their own, they were completely at the mercy of others. These children represented complete dependency and trust. There was not an ounce of self-righteousness or moral superiority within them. But the disciples had decided that they were unworthy to come into Jesus’ presence. Had these men so quickly forgotten the scene of Jesus holding the young boy in His arms? Had the words Jesus had spoken to them simply gone in one ear and out the other?

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” – Mark9:37 ESV

Yet here was Jesus having to rebuke His disciples for their arrogant display of moral superiority. They didn’t get it. They were still harboring their own false conceptions about status in the Kingdom. In their eyes, these children were non-contributors. They had nothing to offer. They were takers, not givers. But Jesus had a completely different perspective. And to the shock and dismay of the disciples, Jesus “took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them” (Mark 10:16 NLT).

The disciples had been right. These “little ones” had nothing to offer Jesus. But Jesus had something to give them: His divine blessing. They came before Jesus as helpless and hopeless children, most likely carried in the arms of their parents. Some were probably too young to walk or talk. But each one, regardess of their age, intellect, family background, or future prospects of success; received the same undeserved gift from the hand of Jesus. Each was touched and blessed by the Son of God.

The Kingdom of God will not be comprised of the successful, gifted, morally exceptional, intellectually superior, or socially acceptable. In fact, Paul reminds every Christ-follower that their adoption into the family of God had nothing to do with them. They brought nothing to the table. They had done nothing to deserve the grace and mercy shown to them by God.

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 NLT

Jesus had repeatedly shown His disciples that He had come to minister to the weak, the helpless, and the hopeless. He had gone out of His way to heal the sick and to minister to the outcasts and socially unacceptable. He had exposed the hypocrisy of the self-righteous religious leaders of Israel. He had willingly associated with tax collectors and prostitutes. And yet, His disciples still struggled with thoughts of their own superiority and harbored hopes of earning a place of honor and distinction in His coming Kingdom. But the lessons would continue, right up until the end. Even in the upper room on the night Jesus would be betrayed, He would provide them with yet another illustration of humility and service by washing their feet. And ultimately, Jesus would perform the greatest act of humility by offering His life as a ransom for many. The greatest of all would become the least of all so that the foolish, the powerless, the despised, and the unimportant might become children of God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Serious Heart Condition

14 And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: 15 There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” 17 And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” Mark 7:14-23 ESV

A small contingent of scribes and Pharisees had confronted Jesus with an accusation presented in the form of a question. They were demanding that Jesus explain the “shocking” behavior of His disciples.

“Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” – Mark 7:5 ESV

What shocked these pious religious leaders was the sight of Jesus’ disciples consuming food without having first cleansed their hands properly.  The word “defiled” is a translation of the Greek word, aniptos which means “unwashed.”  Mark provides a clue as to what was motivating the religious leaders.

For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders… – Mark 7:3 ESV

According to these men, the disciples had violated established protocol. The “tradition of the elders” or oral law, required that all Jews go through a ceremonial cleansing of the hands before eating. Jews were required to wash their hands and say a blessing before eating any meal that included bread. The ritual was known as netilat yadayim, and involved the use of a cup that was used to pour water onto the hands and allowing it to flow down to the elbows. The ritual had nothing to do with personal hygiene but was done for ritualistic purposes.

According to the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, this was nothing more than a ceremony that had little pragmatic value.

When, therefore, some of the Pharisees remarked that our Lord’s disciples ate with “unwashen hands,” it is not to be understood literally that they did not at all wash their hands, but that they did not wash them ceremonially according to their own practice. And this was expected of them only as the disciples of a religious teacher; for these refinements were not practised by the class of people from which the disciples were chiefly drawn. – Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

And Jesus was well aware of the intentions of His accusers. These men were trying to label He and His disciples as law-breakers. But Jesus took the opportunity to teach His followers a valuable lesson on hygiene and holiness.

While the Pharisees had focused all their attention on the outward practice of hand-washing, Jesus took the conversation deeper. To put it another way, He went to the “heart” of the matter. Gathering the people around Him, Jesus said, “All of you listen…and try to understand. It’s not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart” (Mark 7:14-15 NLT).

And that was all He said. As usual, Jesus’ reply was short and succinct, but not exactly clear. And Mark indicates that even the 12 disciples had a difficult time understanding the meaning behind Jesus’ abbreviated lesson. When they were able to be alone with Jesus, they asked Him to explain the meaning behind what they understood to be another one of His parables. But this was less a parable than it was a moral object lesson. What had precipitated Jesus’ comment was the emphasis of the scribes and Pharisees on ritualistic cleansing. These men were all about appearances and used their lengthy list of man-made rules as a way to promote and prove their own righteousness. Their behavior became their badge of honor. Rule-keeping became their primary means for measuring righteousness. But Jesus was much more interested in the inside than the outside. On another occasion, He would level a stinging accusation against the Pharisees, exposing the farcical nature of all their religious rule-keeping.

“you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence!” – Matthew 23:25 NLT

These attacks on the well-respected religious leaders always left the disciples scratching their heads in confusion. Weren’t the scribes and Pharisees to be revered for their obvious displays of righteousness? How could Jesus get away with calling them hypocrites and blind guides? Why did He feel the constant need to anger them?

But Jesus was attempting to teach His disciples that the problem mankind faced was not of a physical nature but of a spiritual one. It all had to do with the condition of the heart. And no amount of outward cleansing or ritual purification could result in a holy heart. So, He reiterated His original statement one more time, but with further clarification.

“Can’t you see that the food you put into your body cannot defile you? Food doesn’t go into your heart, but only passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer.” – Mark 7:18 NLT

Food was little more than fuel, taken into the body as a source of energy, then passed out as human waste. The washing of hands, pots, pans, and the food itself, while beneficial from a personal hygiene perspective, had no value when it came to a person’s spiritual condition. Food may help power the human heart, but it can do nothing to influence the moral state of the human soul, either positively or negatively. Drinking from a ritualistically cleansed cup may make one feel purer, but it was nothing more than a  facade, an exercise in self-deception.

Mark adds another important parenthetical statement intended to provide further clarification for the readers of his gospel.

By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes. – Mark 7:19 NLT

This expanded explanation most likely escaped the disciples. But it would become clearer to them when Jesus had ascended back into heaven after His resurrection. In the days after Jesus departed and the Holy Spirit ascended, the disciples would obey His commission and take the gospel to Jerusalem, Judea, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). And, before long, there would be Gentiles accepting the free gift of God’s grace made possible through faith in Jesus Christ and receiving the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God. The addition of Gentile converts to the early church would produce an important debate among the disciples about the role of the Mosaic law in the lives of these former pagans. There were those, like Peter, who believed that any Gentiles who came to faith should be required to keep the Jewish religious laws, just as they did. But Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, would push back strongly against this unnecessary requirement. In doing so, he was not denigrating God’s law, but simply denying that salvation was by faith alone in Christ alone, with no other requirements necessary. Paul would argue vehemently that the law had no place in the lives of these Gentile converts. The Jewish dietary laws no longer applied. And even the Jewish rite of circumcision was to be set aside.

For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. – Romans 2:28-29 NLT

It was all about the heart. And that was the very point Jesus was trying to make with His disciples. And knowing that their hearts were hardened (Mark 6:52), making it difficult for them to grasp the meaning behind His teaching, Jesus made it plain and simple.

“It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you.” – Mark 7:20-23 NLT

This less-than-flattering list is similar to one found in Paul’s letter to the believers in Galatia.

When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God. – Galatians 5:19-21 NLT

These ungodly, unholy, and unrighteous actions are not the result of unwashed hands but an unregenerate heart. Man’s heart is wicked and controlled by his sinful nature. It is not the byproduct of poor living conditions, improper hygiene, insufficient education, or the failure to keep a set of religious rules.

James reminds us that “Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death” (James 1:14-16 NLT). The prophet Jeremiah adds, “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NLT).

So, Jesus was trying to communicate a deep and abiding truth regarding the nature of man’s sinful state. No amount of ritual cleansing was going to solve the problem. The Pharisees could cleanse the outside of “the cup,” but they would be missing the real problem. Like all men, they were suffering from a serious heart condition that was untreatable by human means. Even their strict adherence to the laws of Moses and their faithful keeping of the traditions of the fathers could do nothing to render their hearts holy and acceptable to God.

And as Paul would later tell the Galatian believers, “it is clear that no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, ‘It is through faith that a righteous person has life’” (Galatians 3:11 NLT).

This was news to the disciples and it went against everything they had been taught as young boys receiving training in the local synagogue. Jesus was letting them know that the problem of sin was far greater and more pervasive than they realized. Man’s defilement and condemnation before God was an internal problem, not an external one, and there would be only one solution. And He was standing right in front of them.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Mystery of the Kingdom

26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

30 And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. 34 He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything. Mark 4:26-34 ESV

In this passage, Jesus continues to utilize parables when addressing the large crowd that had gathered to hear him speak. These simple stories were basically extended metaphors that were intended to make complex concepts easier to understand. But as we have already seen, even Jesus’ closest disciples found it difficult to grasp their meaning. So, Jesus took the time to explain each detail of the parable, ensuring that the 12 understood the vital point He had been trying to make.

In these two parables, Jesus focuses His attention on the Kingdom of God. His earlier parable made no mention of the Kingdom but addressed the receptivity of various people to the Word of God. But what aspect of the Word did Jesus have in mind? If you recall, Jesus had begun His ministry by proclaiming the very same message that John the Baptist had been declaring in the Judean wilderness: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV).

Later, when Jesus sent the 12 disciples on their first missionary journey, He commanded them to “proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 10:7 ESV). And He told them that this message was intended for one audience only: “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6 ESV).

This message of the Kingdom was central to Jesus’ ministry and mission. He was declaring Himself to be the one who would usher in the Kingdom of God. But there was much confusion among the people of Israel as to the exact nature of that Kingdom. Most Jews believed that when God’s Kingdom came to earth it would be in the form of an earthly king who ruled over the restored nation of Israel. They were expecting another king to arise from among the people who would prove to be a descendant of David and would reestablish the Davidic dynasty. This human savior would be a warrior-king who would set them free from their enslavement and subjugation to Rome. He would restore the political, military, and financial fortunes of Israel, making them a force to be reckoned within the region.

But Jesus presents a much different picture of the Kingdom than the one they held. And He describes it through the use of two parables. In both cases, His focus seems to be on the mysterious nature of the Kingdom. It is not going to come quickly or through the use of military power. Once again, Jesus utilizes agrarian imagery to make His point, describing the Kingdom of God as seed being sown. His use of this rather bucolic imagery to describe the Kingdom must have seemed odd to people who were expecting something a bit more aggressive and revolutionary in nature.

While there are some similarities between this parable and the earlier one Jesus told, I believe they are unrelated. While both mention the sowing of seed, the second parable portrays a sower who is a rather passive participant in the process. Jesus states that this farmer scatters the seed, then “Night and day, while he’s asleep or awake, the seed sprouts and grows, but he does not understand how it happens” (Mark 4:27 NLT). The sower is clueless when it comes to the germination process necessary to turn a single seed into grain. He simply sows and then waits to see what will happen. Once the farmer sows the seed, the rest of the process is out of his hands. And Jesus describes the unseen process that must take place for fruit to be produced.

The earth produces the crops on its own. First a leaf blade pushes through, then the heads of wheat are formed, and finally the grain ripens. – Mark 4:28 NLT

Jesus is clearly emphasizing the process of time. The coming of the Kingdom will not take place overnight. It will not involve a radical and immediate overturning of the status quo. No, it will be methodical and divinely orchestrated, operating in an unseen manner but ultimately producing abundant fruitfulness. And only then does the sower step back into the process.

“…as soon as the grain is ready, the farmer comes and harvests it with a sickle, for the harvest time has come.” – Mark 4:29 NLT

This recalls another made by Jesus as He and His 12 disciples made their way through Galilee, “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom” (Matthew 9:35 NLT).  Matthew describes Jesus as seeing the crowds and having compassion on them, “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd(Matthew 9:36 NLT). And Jesus turned to His disciples, and said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:38 NLT).

The sowing of the word concerning the Kingdom was going to produce fruit. It would take time, but it would happen. And when it did, there would be a need for many to harvest the fruit of God’s labor. Don’t miss the point of this parable. The sower simply sowed the seed. It was God who caused the seed (the Word) to take root and produce fruit. The sower had no idea how it happened, but could only testify that it had. He could see the fruit and play a part in harvesting the bounty that God had produced.

Ultimately, salvation is the work of God. As Paul so aptly put it: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV). And Jesus clearly communicated the vital nature of His role in the process.

“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives.” – John 12:24 NLT

The farmer sows the seed and God does the rest. What happens in-between is a miracle and a mystery. But Jesus assures His disciples that there will be fruit – “a plentiful harvest of new lives.”

With the second parable, Jesus extends His focus on the mystery of the Kingdom. He gives the impression that He is searching for just the right metaphor to use and He lands on the image of the mustard seed. Jesus states a fact that would have been well-known to His audience. He refers to the mustard seed as “the smallest of all seeds” (Mark 4:31 NLT). But He points out that, when planted, this minuscule, seemingly insignificant seed “becomes the largest of all garden plants; it grows long branches, and birds can make nests in its shade” (Mark 4:32 NLT).

Everyone in His audience knew what a mustard seed was and they all knew what kind of tree it produced. But they had no idea how the transformation from one to the other took place. It was a mystery. And that seems to be Jesus’ point.

Jesus is using the imagery of the mustard seed to illustrate the nature of God’s Kingdom. And what He has to say stands in direct contrast to the expectations of the Jews. They were not looking for a small, insignificant Kingdom that would ultimately grow into something more impressive and impactful. They wanted immediate results. They had been waiting a long time for God to make things right. It had been hundreds of years since they had been a powerful nation with their very own king. So, the thought of having to wait for the “seed” to take root and grow would not have been something they found attractive.

But again, Jesus had come to establish a different kind of Kingdom. Several years later, as He stood before Pilate, the Roman governor, Jesus would declare, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36 NLT).

Jesus had not come to sit on a throne, but to hang on a cross. He had not come to be exalted to the highest office in the land, but to take “the humble position of a slave” and be “born as a human being” (Philippians 2:7 NLT). Paul goes on to state that Jesus  “humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 NLT). And as a result of His willing humiliation and sacrificial offering of His own life, “God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11 NLT).

And one day, the exalted King is going to return and set up His Kingdom on earth. But in the meantime, the Word concerning the Kingdom must be faithfully sown. And those who sow must faithfully trust that God will do what only He can do: produce a plentiful harvest of new lives. God is in the business of producing citizens for His Son’s future Kingdom. He is raising up children who will live with He and His Son for eternity. How does He do it? It is a mystery. How long will it take? No one knows. How much fruit will He produce? Who can say. But we must faithfully sow and be ready to reap the harvest that He will produce.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Divine Hearing Aid

1 Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” 

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.’”

13 And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 15 And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. 16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 17 And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18 And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 20 But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” Mark 4:1-20 ESV

For whatever reason, Luke records this event as taking place before Jesus’ mother and brothers showed up to see Him. Matthew and Mark place the telling of this parable after their arrival. This is not an example of a contradiction in the Bible, as much as it is an example of the gospel authors arranging the events of Jesus’ life in order to drive home the point they are attempting to make. Each of them places a different emphasis on the various aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry because they are chronicling the story from their own personal perspective and with a specific audience in mind.

But all three authors of the Synoptic Gospels include this parable. Over the centuries, it has been referred to by many names, including the parable of the seeds, the parable of the sower, and the parable of the soils. But regardless of what you call it, this parable is a classic example of a teaching style that was common in Jesus’ day. Parables were extended metaphors that attempted to communicate difficult truths through the use of comparison. Jesus utilized this teaching method frequently, especially when addressing large crowds. But as we will see illustrated in this passage, Jesus would often take time to explain the meaning of the parable to His 12 disciples.

Matthew records that Jesus told this parable on the same day His mother and brothers had come to see Him.

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables… – Matthew 13:1-3 ESV

It is important to remember what Jesus had said earlier that same day.

And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” – Matthew 12:49-50 ESV

The next scene reveals Jesus sitting in a boat just off the shore of the Sea of Galilee, as a large crowd gathers on the shoreline to hear what He has to say. Mark indicates that Jesus began “teaching them many things in parables.” As usual, His audience would have included all types of people, including His faithful followers, the simply curious, those hoping to be healed, and the ever-present Pharisees and scribes. It is likely that HIs mother, Mary, and his half-brothers were also in attendance that day. The diversity of His audience will become increasingly more important as the parable unfolds.

Jesus told a story about a farmer who went out to sow. This imagery would have been very familiar to His audience because they lived in an agrarian culture where this scene was commonplace and uneventful. But in His story, Jesus describes the farmer’s valuable seeds falling onto four different surfaces: A well-worn path, rocky ground, a thorn-infested patch of land, and finally, a field that had been properly prepared for seeds.

The mostly rural audience to whom Jesus addressed this parable would have immediately guessed the outcome of the story. You didn’t have to be a farmer to understand that many of the seeds had been scattered in places that would prove to be inhospitable and unfruitful. Those seeds would have been wasted. And Jesus confirms this conclusion by describing the seeds as being eaten by birds, scorched by the sun, and choked out by thorns. In a few cases, the seeds took root but failed to produce fruit.

This story would have resonated among people who were heavily taxed by the Romans and who saw poverty and deprivation all around them. For many of them, just making ends meet was a daily struggle, and the thought of valuable seeds being sown so carelessly would have gotten their attention. It’s likely that the people began to draw their own conclusions as to the meaning of the story. They were familiar with the use of parables and would have known that there was some hidden lesson to be learned. Some probably assumed that Jesus was pointing out the carelessness of the farmer. His haphazard scattering of the seeds was meant to illustrate the need for good stewardship. Others might have focused their attention on the seeds themselves, noting that some of the seeds were quickly consumed, while others sprouted, but failed to produce fruit. Maybe Jesus was illustrating the need for good works. The farmer had intended for all the seeds to produce fruit, but most did not. And in the works-based environment of Judaism, it would have been easy for some in the crowd to assume that Jesus was promoting the need for the faithful observance of the law.

And Jesus makes no effort to explain His story, but simply concludes it by stating, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9 ESV). The NET Bible provides a bit more forceful rendering of Jesus’ words: “Whoever has ears to hear had better listen!

This wasn’t just a story. It was an important lesson that was to have real-life implications. So, Jesus warned them that hearing what He had to say would not be enough. He expected them to listen and learn. His lesson behind His story was meant to be apprehended and then applied.

But the people were confused. Mark indicates that some of Jesus’ followers approached Him asking for an explanation.

those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. – Mark 4:10 ESV

Matthew adds that the 12 disciples had a more specific question for Jesus.

“Why do you speak to them in parables?” – Matthew 13:10 ESV

And Jesus revealed to His closest followers the purpose behind His use of parables.

“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables…” – Mark 4:11 ESV

In a sense, Jesus was revealing that the 12 disciples had been set apart by God to receive knowledge that was unavailable and inaccessible to everyone else. They were being given the privilege of knowing divine truths concerning the kingdom of God of which the scribes and Pharisees were ignorant. The religious leaders of Israel were famous for their knowledge of the Mosaic Law and their encyclopedic understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures. But they were ignorant of what God was doing. Jesus would later say of these men:

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” – John 5:39-40 ESV

And even these learned men were unable to grasp the meaning of the parable Jesus told. Jesus said it was hidden from them. He quoted from Isaiah 6:9-10, explaining that it is God who chooses to reveal hidden truths and, according to His sovereign will, He sometimes blinds the eyes and deafens the ears of some so that they might not turn and be forgiven.

“‘they may indeed see but not perceive,
    and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.’” – Mark 4:12 ESV

What Jesus was saying was that the ability to hear and understand the deep truths concerning the kingdom of God comes from the Father. He alone can open the eyes and ears of the spiritually blind and deaf to perceive the truth. The scribes and Pharisees spent years studying the Scriptures but were oblivious to the truths revealed in them. Despite their knowledge, they were ignorant of what God was doing in their midst. And unless God opened their eyes, they would remain blind to the truth regarding Jesus. Unless God opened their ears, they would hear but never understand the message of the gospel.

In the Gospel of John, we have a record of Jesus’ powerful words concerning the inability of men to understand the ways of God.

“The Spirit alone gives eternal life. Human effort accomplishes nothing. And the very words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But some of you do not believe me.” – John 6:63-64 NLT

And He went on to reveal man’s complete reliance upon God for salvation.

“That is why I said that people can’t come to me unless the Father gives them to me.” – John 6:65 NLT

Which brings us back to the parable. Jesus knew that His disciples had not yet grasped its meaning, so He explained. The seed represented the word or the message He had come to proclaim. And don’t forget what that message was. Mark described it this way:

Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached God’s Good News. “The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” – Mark 1:14-15 NLT

It was the good news of the King and His Kingdom. The Messiah had come. But while John the Baptist and Jesus had proclaimed that message near and far, it had fallen on deaf ears. There were many who had heard it and begun to believe that Jesus might be the long-awaited Messiah, but they had begun to have their doubts. Their initial faith got choked out by the cares and concerns of this world. There were others who heard the word and simply refused to believe at all. They rejected it wholeheartedly. Insert the scribes and Pharisees here. Then there were others who heard it but allowed the threat of ex-communication by the religious leaders to drive them away.

But Jesus describes the fourth group: “the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:20 ESV). They are those, like the 12 disciples, whom God has chosen to understand the truth concerning the King and His Kingdom. The Word concerning the Son of God has fallen on them and taken root and, in time, it will produce much fruit. But their ability to hear and accept the Word of God concerning the Son of God is the result of the Spirit of God. Because “the Spirit alone gives eternal life” (John 6:63 NLT).

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson