Called to Follow Jesus.
Copyright © 2008, J.W. Carter
The church in America, without regard to denomination or location, is in a state that deserves some concern. We live in a time and culture that demands that all that we deal with is "user friendly." What is the most commonly used household appliance? It is the television remote control unit. One would not think of buying a television set without a remote control. Product manufacturers continually develop products to make their products simpler or easier to use because our society demands it. Western societies used to have a strong and healthy work ethic because hard work was necessary for survival. However, improvements in technology and the tools we use to do our work has reduced much of the labor of life and given us a great amount of leisure and recreational time. We have changed to a culture with a consumer ethic. People now demand immediate reward for their minimal efforts. They expect their wants and desires to be immediately gratified regardless of the impact such behavior has upon others.
As members of this worldly culture, these viewpoints have permeated the church body. What are some of the things people now look for in a church? Many look for the same thing they want everywhere else: to receive something from it as a consumer. The church is becoming a society of consumers, with its members expecting the church to provide for their needs with as little effort on their own part as possible. As consumers they find themselves judging its programs, its staff, its leadership, and its ability to entertain them in its services. In all, churches in Western society have become quite comfortable, with all of the benefits of a country club and few, if any, responsibilities. We often rely on 10% to 20% of the body to carry 90% of the responsibility and support. Attendance in church services is sporadic or rare for the vast majority of church members. Most make little effort to live a life that is submitted to the Holy Spirit. If asked to do anything more for the Kingdom of God than they currently are, one might hear the testimony, "I am too busy," "Iím not able to do that," or many others from a list of many excuses and rationalizations.
Is this the type of discipleship that Christians are called to?
During the Chinese revolution, a group of Christians were worshipping while hiding from a revolutionary army that was collecting and imprisoning all who worshipped God. As they were praying, a pair of soldiers burst through the door with their weapons brought to bear upon them. The soldiers announced that all who would reject their faith in God could safely leave, and those remaining would be killed. Most of the members denounced the importance of their faith and left, leaving behind a faithful few who believed that they might die for their faith this very day. With the less faithful absent from the place, the soldiers set down their weapons, apologized, and asked that they be allowed to pray with them, as they were also Christians. Their dramatic entry was staged to protect them from certain prison or death if the truth of their faith was made known, and they knew that only those who remained could be trusted.
Certainly, we risk few such dangers in our church today. Even those committed core groups, that remnant of faithful believers who form the pillars of strength in all of our modern Western churches are blessed with living a relatively comfortable Christian life. Instances of conflict with the world community have been, until just recently, quite rare. Consequently, the effectiveness of the Christian Church in the world is at its lowest point in contemporary history. The most aggressive opponent of the Christian Church, Islam, is growing, recently passing Catholicism as the largest religious group in the world.
Conflict with the world is now coming upon us. We are going to see more persecution from Islam, as well as more cultural persecution for those who maintain their faith without compromise in a relativistic society that sees Christians as ignorant and intolerant. Christians have not been called to a shallow discipleship, but rather to a deep and abiding relationship with Jesus Christ, a relationship that will bring ridicule and scorn. This biblical passage will help us understand why we can expect such treatment.
We are in the very dynamic gospel of Mark, a writer who presents Jesusí ministry as a three-fold drama. The first story line is that of the ministry, passion, and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God. The second story line is that of the religious leaders who, though given authority by the Jewish community, exercise a false, pride-based, form of authority. They are in continual conflict with Jesusí ministry and message and are frequently pointed out by Jesus as exemplifying the failure of works-based righteousness. The third story line involves the call, preparation, and discipling of the twelve apostles. Though they respond eagerly to the call and listen intently to Jesus' teaching, they often seem to misunderstand the context of their calling, or the messages that Jesus presents to them. They do not fully comprehend Jesusí self-description or prophesies and, in the end, are so lacking in commitment as to abandon Jesus during His passion. This passage concentrates on the conflict between the Messiah, and those who He had come to save, the same conflict that Christians face today.
1. Faith in Jesus leads us to forgiveness. Mark 2:1-5
And again he entered into Capernaum after some days; and it was noised that he was in the house. 2And straightway many were gathered together, insomuch that there was no room to receive them, no, not so much as about the door: and he preached the word unto them.
The first 13 verses of Mark are an introduction of Jesus as the Son of God. The remainder of the chapter introduces Jesus early ministry of calling the apostles, healing the sick, and presenting the good news of the coming of the Kingdom of God. People are flocking to this small community to hear the teaching of this new prophet and possibly witness one of the miracles they had heard of. We find Jesus teaching in a small house with people quickly filling the room, the doorway and windows to the point that no more people could enter.
And they come unto him, bringing one sick of the palsy, which was borne of four. 4And when they could not come nigh unto him for the press, they uncovered the roof where he was: and when they had broken it up, they let down the bed wherein the sick of the palsy lay. 5When Jesus saw their faith, he said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, thy sins be forgiven thee.
Why did the four friends of the paralytic go through the trouble of climbing stairs to the thatch roof, tear apart the roof, and lower their friend in front of Jesus and the crowd? The press of the crowd prevented them from entering through the door. As a paralytic, the righteous Jews would not tolerate any physical contact with this stricken individual, so squeezing him through the crowd was impossible. Seeking to bring their friend to Jesus for healing, they were forced to climb onto the roof, separate the thatching, and lower their friend to the floor in front of Jesus. However, Jesus did not immediately heal the stricken man; but rather, He told the paralytic that his sins were forgiven. Such a statement at this point may seem out of context, and it was certainly something that would not be expected by the crowd of listeners, the paralytic's friends, or the owner of the home who just witnessed the destruction of his roof!
Why were the sins of the paralytic forgiven? Certainly the paralytic and his friends, as well as those in the crowd, were only hoping for physical healing as they came to Jesus. However, physical healing is only a glimpse of the purpose of God that Jesus came to fulfill, to heal the far more devastating wound that sin has inflicted on mankind. Our need for physical healing only impacts our time here on earth, but our need for forgiveness impacts us for eternity. Jesus began to teach of the need for forgiveness early in His ministry, a teaching that was controversial among those who saw no need for this forgiveness.
Forgiveness of sins comes only through sincere and trusting faith in God, coming at a price paid for by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Though at this point we are not aware of a sincere profession of faith on the part of the paralytic, Jesus knew his heart, and He knew of the sincere commitment that the man would later make. Jesus already knew of the faith of this man and that of his friends. Much is often said about the faith of those friends who believed that Jesus would heal the paralytic, and little is said about the paralytic himself. However, the context of forgiveness is consistent throughout the scriptures, and can be applied here. What Jesus did, under Godís authority, is the same thing that God does for us every day: declare as forgiven those who have placed their faith and trust in Him.
Today we celebrate the gift of mercy that God give to those who love Him. One might expect the religious leaders in the assembly to do the same. An appropriate response would be to shout in excitement and praise for the wondrous gift that this man had received. However, though religious, these were not men of faith, and they did not understand, nor did they hope to understand what it was that they were witnessing.
2. Faith in Jesus leads us to Healing. Mark 2:6-12
But there were certain of the scribes sitting there, and reasoning in their hearts, 7Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? who can forgive sins but God only?
John 1:19 implies that the religious leaders came to "spy" on Jesus, hoping to find some substantial charges to bring against Him so that He might be discredited. Listening to Jesus with a critical and condemning ear, Jesus gave them what He knew they were listening for, as they interpreted the details of the event based upon their traditional and legalistic standards. Though Jesus' words were consistent with the basic gospel message, they were in stark conflict with the leading cultural opinion of the day. That opinion was one that was created by the traditions of the most influential people of the culture, the scribes and Pharisees. In our society, the closest examples of those who shape public opinion are probably those in the public media. Just as Jesusí words did not agree with the philosophy of the day, those words still are in conflict with the world-view of today's culture. How can any person have the authority to forgive the sins of another? The religious leaders accused Jesus of blasphemy, a crime punishable by death by stoning (Lev 24:10-16), though stoning had not been practiced for several centuries. This was the same charge that those religious leaders would use to justify Jesus' death on the cross (Mark 14:61-64). Jesus had not yet called together all of his 12 disciples, and he was already in conflict with the current world-view.
The scribes and Pharisees were most likely astonished by what they had just heard. They came with the intent on finding some way to attack Jesus, and the words they just heard was to them the very ammunition they needed. When Jesus spoke of forgiven sins, He used the word for sins that refers to all transgressions, including both those which are willful, and those which are errors. The Jews were very sensitive about this issue, as they had in place a system of atonement for sin by the giving of sacrifices, a system that provided forgiveness from God alone. Furthermore, the system of atonement that was in place only served to provide for sins that were committed by error, and not by will. That is why, when David committed adultery and murder, he could not simply present an offering to God. David cried out to God for His personal forgiveness. When Jesus proclaimed forgiveness for this paralytic, he included this type of sin for which the religious leaders felt there was no avenue for forgiveness except through prayer to God alone. Jesus had, in their opinion, just committed the very form of blasphemy that they were look for. Jesus had claimed for Himself that which they believed was reserved for God alone. They now had the ammunition to accuse him, not only of a crime, but of blasphemy: a crime punishable by death.
And immediately when Jesus perceived in his spirit that they so reasoned within themselves, he said unto them, Why reason ye these things in your hearts? 9Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk? 10But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (he saith to the sick of the palsy,) 11I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house. 12And immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went forth before them all; insomuch that they were all amazed, and glorified God, saying, We never saw it on this fashion.
What did healing the paralytic have to do with the forgiveness of sins? In their world-view, the two were directly related. People did not understand the source of sickness, so they attributed it (as with all things not understood) to Godís will, and human reason will argue that God would not allow anyone to suffer unless there was sin in their life. Grievous suffering was interpreted as Godís judgment upon them for their sins. To these people sin and sickness were inexorably linked. Consequently, Jesus was communicating a message to the Pharisees that they could understand. By walking out of the room, the paralytic would be clearly and boldly demonstrating that the sins that put him on the mat were forgiven.
This one act of conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders is described in almost identical detail in each of the synoptic gospels and in each case sets the stage for the drama of conflict that will exist between Kingdom of God and the Jerusalem Jews.
Jesus, and later the disciples, would continue to be the victims of misunderstanding and opposition. The paradigms of faith and the world-view of this secular and pagan culture are quite opposite. How should Christians respond to the misunderstanding and opposition that this conflict will always engender? Christians must remain firm in conviction and must refuse to compromise the truth of the Gospel or the clear calling of God simply to find acceptance in this world. Christians must respond in love, even to people who persecute them (Matt 5:10-12). For decades in America, a strong Christian influence and a general respect for Christian values have minimized persecution of believers. Today, American culture is changing, and Christians no longer can expect the general public to respect Christian values any longer. Christians who advocate Biblical values increasingly will be objects of ridicule, marginalization, and outright opposition. We should not be surprised when we experience such response.
Unfortunately, because the culture of this world has so fully permeated the church, one can also expect such opposition from within the church body, and often that opposition can be more difficult to deal with both strategically and emotionally than that which comes from the world because of the closeness of the relationships involved. Remember that the scribes and Pharisees were literally the church leaders. Spirit-filled and sincere church leadership will always be sensitive to the areas within their body where Satan has been empowered, and they will seek to promote changes that will remove such influence. It is unfortunate that such leadership will often be unable to act because of opposition within the church body that is almost identical in context to that which Jesus is dealing with. The scribes and Pharisees saw nothing wrong with their own way of thinking, and were blind to the work of the Holy Spirit around them. instead of following the lead of the Holy Spirit, they used their personal influence to oppose Jesus. Likewise, church members can be blinded by their own self-will and not understand the context of what is being attempted by their leadership, and rather than trust them by following the changes the leadership promotes, such members oppose any such change. If there is any lesson that church members can learn from the opposition of Jesus by the Jewish leadership is that church members can be blinded into thinking that the way that things have always been done should be preserved at all costs. This was certainly the position of the Jewish leadership. Convinced of their righteousness, that leadership saw no need for repentance.
3. Faith in Jesus leads us to repentance. Mark 2:13-17
And he went forth again by the sea side; and all the multitude resorted unto him, and he taught them. 14And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the receipt of custom, and said unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him. 15And it came to pass, that, as Jesus sat at meat in his house, many publicans and sinners sat also together with Jesus and his disciples: for there were many, and they followed him. 16And when the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with publicans and sinners, they said unto his disciples, How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners?
Jesus had just called Levi (or Matthew) and at Leviís invitation came to his house with the other disciples to have dinner together. The teachers of the law were not particularly invited to this dinner, yet they were there. They were still keeping an eye on Jesus and the threat to their doctrines that he represented, again looking for any opportunity to discredit Him. Note that the law they were teaching was not so much Mosaic Law, but was rather the large set of traditions contained in the Mishnah and Talmud commentaries that included excessive hedge laws that were neither scriptural nor authoritative. These laws were only enforced through the power of the authority of the religious leaders. Those who did not keep to these laws were considered by the religious leaders as "sinners" as described in verse 15. This adds a little more insight to Jesusí response to their criticism:
When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
The scribes and the Pharisees, who considered themselves to exemplify cleanliness and righteousness, despised the sick and infirmed as those who are unclean, and unrighteous. They went through great effort to assure that they did not touch or associate with the sick in any way. They also despised those who did not keep their set of religious rules, considering them as law-breakers who are demonstrating in their lives the same sin that the sick are suffering for. Consequently, the scribes and Pharisees avoided contact with this group of people in the same way that they avoided the sick. They could level another charge against Jesus because of His association with those whom they considered sinners. Levi was a publican, a tax-collector who collected taxes for Rome at the local level. He was considered by the religious establishment to be the worst of sinners, a traitor to the Jews because he worked for Rome in a task that they considered part of the Roman persecution.
The call to discipleship is a call to be like Jesus, demonstrating the same love towards others that Jesus shows. Unlike the religious establishment, those who follow Jesus are called, like Him, to minister to those whom society considers publicans and sinners. I was once asked by the religious establishment the church I then attended to resign from my positions of leadership because of my ministry in the bars of a small upstate New York village. Just as Jesus described Himself as a physician who has come to minister to the sick, Christians are each called as ministers to those who are in spiritual need. This group of needy is populated with those who have been swallowed up by the evils of this secular and pagan world. In order to minister to these, Christians will often need to get outside of their churches and outside of their homes where they will find those who are in need of Jesus. They will be found on the streets, in the stores, in the bars, and everywhere else that people gather. The call to discipleship is a call, not to avoid contact with the publicans and sinners, but rather to establish relationships with publicans and sinners so that they can come to hear and know the wonderful message of the gospel, a message that can lift them out of the darkness of this world and transport them into the light that a personal relationship with God brings.
4. Faith in Jesus leads us to a changed life. Mark 2:18-22
And the disciples of John and of the Pharisees used to fast: and they come and say unto him, Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not? 19And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days.
Described in Leviticus 16, the Mosaic Law required only one annual day of fasting, practiced on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. The Jerusalem Jews had accelerated the observance of fasting from once a year to twice each week, on Mondays and Thursdays. It is interesting that John the Baptist and his disciples had kept to that tradition of regular fasting. By doing so they were more accepted by the Jerusalem Jews since they appeared to be keeping the traditions, making them "righteous" under the law, and reducing the resistance they would experience from the religious establishment. However, the fasting that they were doing was based entirely a man-made law and carried only the authority of those who demanded it. Jesus and his disciples were not breaking any Mosaic law by failure to observe this tradition of accelerated fasting. However, the Jewish leadership saw this as a transgression against the faith that they themselves had come to require.
In Jesusí response he clearly describes the source of the criticism He and the disciples are receiving. First, the tradition of the fast was one of ascetism. It was intended to be a time of self-inflicted suffering and mourning, and it was common for those who were fasting to make it well known to those around them by downcast faces and mournful statements and expressions. After all, what good is it to "suffer" if nobody notices? First Jesus addresses this. He states that this time is not one of mourning. Anyone who acted in this manner in a time of celebration would be considered by all to be rude and tasteless, even among them. For example, wedding feasts went on for several days. What did the Jerusalem Jews do if this interfered with their fast? They considered the marriage event to supersede the necessity for fasting; they could not fast during such a time.
No man also seweth a piece of new cloth on an old garment: else the new piece that filled it up taketh away from the old, and the rent is made worse. 22And no man putteth new wine into old bottles: else the new wine doth burst the bottles, and the wine is spilled, and the bottles will be marred: but new wine must be put into new bottles.
Jesus described the conflict between current religious opinion and the gospel like placing new cloth on old, or placing new wine into old wineskins. The Pharisaical traditions were like the old cloth or the old wineskin. It could not resolve the disparity between its man-created, law and works-based religion with the message of the faith of the Gospel that Jesus was bringing. In short, they would never be able to understand the message of the gospel any more than those old wineskins could hold new, unfermented, wine. Like the self-assured Pharisees, the old cloth or old wineskins could not stretch: they were brittle and inflexible. Jesus was describing the traditional religion of the Jerusalem Jews in those same terms. It is evident that few of the Pharisees could see far enough past their prejudices to hear and respond to Jesus' message. However, in the gospels we do learn of a Pharisee named Nicodemus and another, Joseph of Arimathea, who did understand Jesusí teaching and came to him in faith.
If Christians are bold enough to express faith without compromise, at least two things will be accomplished. First, Christians will find one another. Rather than being mixed in with the crowd, Christians will recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Christ and together, serve as sources of encouragement for one another. Second, Christians will discover those who do not share the Christian view. Those who resist the faith fall into two camps. The largest camp is the great majority of people who believe in a relativistic, universalistic theology that holds to the philosophy that one's own choice of personal belief is sufficient in this life. ďWhat I believe is OK. I will tolerate you if you will tolerate me and leave me alone.Ē ďNo matter what we believe, as long as we are good, God will not judge us harshly.Ē These people will not ridicule you or persecute you unless you get too close to their turf or try to change their minds. The second camp of opposition, an area that will be a source of ridicule and persecution, will come from a broader part of society, as Christians are more and more presented by the media as ignorant, and intolerant. Itís a shame that we play the part so well, with many Christians ignorant of even the basics of the faith, and many Christians demonstrating prejudice and intolerance. We will often find the attacks hard to deal with. How do we respond when we are accused of bigotry when our churches lack diversity? How do we respond to their accusations of arrogance when we tell them that Jesus is the only way to salvation? Jesus has made a promise to us that we should always be aware of when we face opposition.
Jesus' ministry was characterized by a love for all people, a love that is consistent with the agape love that God expresses for all people. This love drew Jesus to minister to those who would receive Him, often those who were considered outcasts by the religious establishment. When Jesus did minister to those who needed Him most, He was subjected, not only to criticism by the Jerusalem church, but He was also despised by its leadership. As Jesus disciples, Christians today are called to the same ministry: to share God's love with those who need it most.
First, "put yourself into the shoes" of the scribes and Pharisees.
∑ They considered themselves to be more righteous than the publicans and sinners.
∑ They maintained their righteousness by refusing to touch those who were in need.
∑ They were critical of anyone who would touch or associate with publicans and sinners.
Now, "put yourself into the shoes" of Jesus.
∑ Jesus considered the needs of the publicans and sinners to be more important than the established rules of the church
∑ Jesus went out of His way to minister to those in need, even when it brought criticism from the church leadership.
Christians, like the scribes and Pharisees, are all part of the church, a church that has established any number of traditions and ideas concerning the state of the lost in this world. Christians are called to be like Jesus. Consequently, there is often a decision to be made, a choice of whether to exhibit the behavior of the scribes and Pharisees, or to exhibit the character of Jesus. As disciples, Christians are called to take on the character of Jesus and when one loves others as Jesus does, the power of the traditional rules that separate the faithful from those who are in need tend to fade away.
∑ Following Jesus is more than learning about the truths of the faith.
∑ Following Jesus is more than faithfulness in church attendance.
∑ Following Jesus is more than keeping the traditions of the Christian faith.
∑ Following Jesus is more about taking a stand for the truth in a world that rejects it, willing to face rejection and ridicule.
∑ Following Jesus is more about ministering in love to those who are in need: those who have been rejected by society, and those who have been rejected by the church.
∑ It is following Jesus that characterizes a disciple of Christ, one who has been forgiven and healed, repentant of the sins of this pagan world, and exhibiting a new and regenerated life under the Lordship of Christ.
Let us not be characterized as the scribes and Pharisees who lived out their faith within the protected walls of their synagogues, avoiding contact with a world that they thought would make them dirty. Let us be characterized like Jesus who concentrated his efforts outside of the walls of the synagogue where He ministered to all people as an expression of His love, His mercy, and His grace.