My Sunday sermons given at Sellwood Baptist Church in Portland, OR, for those who missed church or just want to see what we're up to. You can also listen to these sermons if you prefer. Just go to our church website and click the "Online Church" tab. Here's the link:

Monday, February 22, 2010

"Spiritual Bigotry" - (2/21/10)

For many of us the name, Archie Bunker, brings up a mental picture of a guy who was always grouchy, and mean, and intolerant of anyone who was not just like him.  He had a low view of women, including his own wife and daughter.  He didn’t like African-Americans.  He had no use for Asians, especially the Japanese.  He called all Germans, “Nazis.”  He didn’t trust Jews.  He said that Englishmen were all “sissies.”  He had no appreciation whatsoever for people of Polish descent, starting with his son-in-law, and he didn’t think that Italians were worth much either.  He was an equal opportunity bigot—he could say rotten things about anyone who came through his door, and could do it with the most offensive pejoratives and racial slurs you can imagine.  Of course, “All in the Family” was one of the most popular TV programs in history because of all that.  Archie’s bigotry and intolerance were so over-the-top that his comments made us laugh out loud.  However, in real life, bigotry is not so funny.  Anyone who has been on the receiving end knows how badly it can hurt, and how deeply it can scar.
But racial bigotry is certainly nothing new.  There are countless examples in history of one people-group detesting another group, and practicing genocide to try and totally wipe their enemy off the face of the earth.  The dictionary defines “bigot” as: “(1) A person who holds blindly and intolerantly to a particular creed, opinion, etc.; (2) A narrow-minded, prejudiced person.”  The related noun form, “bigotry,” is similar: “the behavior, attitude, or beliefs of a bigot; intolerance; prejudice.”

The New Testament is filled with examples of bigotry.  The Romans despised the Jews, and looked at them as vermin to be exterminated.  The Jews hated the Romans and considered them “dirty” because of their food and their immorality.  Moreover, the Jews looked down on anyone who was non-Jewish (Gentiles, “the Goyim,” “heathens,” “the nations”).  Then, of course, there were the famous Pharisees.  They didn’t like anybody very much, and believed that they were religiously superior to everyone else on the planet, including the Sadducees and the Essenes, the other two major religious parties within Judaism at the time.
However, the Pharisees reserved their most distilled, white-hot disdain for that heretical blasphemer, Jesus of Nazareth, and His so-called “disciples.”  They considered Jesus to be a low-bred, uneducated, unwashed upstart who should not be taken seriously because he had neither come from a good family nor attended an approved rabbinic seminary.  Moreover, he didn’t dress or behave like a rabbi.  And even more disturbing, he refused to submit himself to them, their religious customs, and their Pharisaic view of the Holy Scriptures.
All of that we know, and we can mutter to ourselves about how horrible it was that they treated people like that.  However, our text for today, taken from Mark 9:38-50, shows that the Pharisees weren’t the only bigots on the block.  Some of Jesus’ own followers were just a guilty.  And even more disturbing is the fact that some of us are guilty of the same intolerant attitudes toward people who are not just like us, who worship a little differently, or who don’t dot all our theological “I’s” or cross all our ecclesiological “T’s”.
Open your Bibles to Mark, chapter 9.

Verse 38: John said to Him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us.” 
  • You’ll remember that immediately preceding this passage Jesus was giving to His disciples a lesson about the true nature of being a servant and of having the godly attitude of seeking to serve, rather than to be served by others.  He also used a little child as an object lesson to teach them that really loving God means also loving the Son of God; and that, in turn, means loving the people that Jesus loves.  So right on the heels of those powerful lessons about servanthood and humility and genuine love, John pipes up with this zinger comment!
  • We don’t know what caused John to want to change the subject so abruptly.  Maybe he was feeling convicted by Jesus’ words.  Or maybe it was in response to Jesus’ comment in verse 37 about receiving the little child “in His name.”  Nevertheless, John took the conversation in another direction by bringing up these folks who were casting out demons in Jesus’ name but were not part of their little group.
  • John’s comment fairly bristles with hostility, intolerance, and self-righteousness.  He was thinking, “How dare they do stuff in Jesus’ name but not submit themselves to us, the real followers of Jesus?”  This sounds like a Pharisee talking.

Verses 39-40: But Jesus said, “Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me.  40 For he who is not against us is for us.” 
  • What is Jesus saying here?  The first part is clear: “Leave him alone.  Don’t hinder him.  Quit trying to stop him.”  They He explains the reason: People doing miracles in His name and by His power and by His authority obviously believe in Jesus.  They are only going to have good things to say about Jesus, not bad things.
  • “For he who is not against us is for us.”  John would have turned that around: “By George, whoever is not exactly like us and hangs out with us and does everything the way we do it is obviously not part of our group and should be stopped at all costs!”  That’s what the disciples believed.  What a contrast to Jesus’ way of looking at it.
  • I suspect that we, more often than not, more closely resemble John and his buddies in some of our attitudes toward fellow believers, than we do Jesus.  Among Christians there is a great deal of “brand loyalty” to denominations, creeds, traditions, worship styles, and hobby-horse doctrines.  Though people seldom verbalize this attitude, if they did it would sound like this: “We are from the First Church of the Heavenly Handshake and we have the most accurate theology, the most biblical way of conducting worship services, the most powerful praying, and the most authentic New Testament way of doing church in general.  That puts us at the top of the hill and everybody else somewhere down below us.  Jesus must be very proud of us.  So if you want a good church, come see us!”
  • Now there is nothing wrong with being connected to a denomination.  In fact, it’s a good thing in my opinion, for a variety of reasons.  Moreover, there is nothing wrong with having a well thought-out doctrinal statement and definite positions on biblical issues.  We should know what we believe and be able to explain the “why” of it.  Likewise, there is nothing in the world wrong with having a style of worship with which we feel comfortable and that aids us in connecting with God.  The Bible leaves the door wide open as to worship styles, and we have a lot of wiggle room there.
  • The problem arises when we take our denomination, our worship style, our doctrinal slant, and our modus operandi and make them the norm for every other Christian or Christian group to follow, under threat of excommunication if they fail to live up to our homemade theological litmus test.  That is Pharisaism at its worst!  And sadly, I have observed that it is common among Christians, and I’ve even been guilty of it myself, which really troubles me.

Verse 41: For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name as followers of Christ, truly I say to you, he will not lose his reward.” 
  • Here Jesus speaks of someone who does something nice for a Christian, simply because he is a Christian.  Jesus says that person will one day be rewarded for his kindness, because by extension, his kindness to us is really a kindness toward Christ himself.
  • No service for Christ will ever be too small to go unnoticed by Him.  Even giving someone a cup of cold water, if done with righteous motives, will be considered an act of Christian service that is pleasing to God.  The second phrase of this verse emphasizes this point.  Literally Jesus said, “Truly (Amen!) I tell you that by no means (= Gr. double negative, the strongest negative possible) will he lose his reward.” 

Verse 42: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea.” 
  • “One of these little ones who believe.”  Over the years there has been much discussion about what Jesus meant by this.  Was He referring to the child who was sitting on His lap a moment before, being used as an object lesson?  Or was Jesus talking about the man that John and the boys had rebuked and forbidden to perform exorcisms in Jesus’ name because he didn’t live up to their high self-appointed standard.  Or was He referring in general to believers who were new to the faith and thus very impressionable and easily offended, possibly including that man?
  • One thing we can say for sure, Jesus was not just saying this for effect.  He was not being melodramatic.  He was not trying to do an Italian godfather impersonation, though I can envision Al Pacino saying something like this.  No, Jesus was giving a very real warning.  And I believe that in the context He was referring to the disciples’ disturbing attitude of religious bigotry evidenced in their treatment of that man who was from a different denomination, let’s say.
  • “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble…  (The KJV says, “And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in Me…)  Jesus always chose His words carefully.  Here He used the Greek verb, skandalídzo, which means to place a snare or trap in a person’s way, causing him to stumble.  From this word come the English words “scandal” and “to scandalize.”  It means to be a stumbling block to someone.  Jesus warns us to be sure not to do that, or be that, to anyone, whether a child or another Christian, especially one that is new in the faith.  (Note: Could this verse have ramifications for child molesters and abortion doctors?  I’m just thinking out loud.)

Verses 43-44: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, 44 where ‘THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED.’” 
  • This is the first of three warnings that are all very much alike.  They all three follow the same pattern.  All three are followed up by the same quoted verse from the OT.  There is a pattern here, a parallel structure, with just the details changed.  All three warnings teach the same truth.  Not only is it possible for our attitudes and actions to constitute a stumbling block for others, we can actually be a stumbling block to ourselves.  That’s what Jesus is warning us about in vs. 43-48.
  • In this first of the three warnings the focus is on the hand and its ability to get us into trouble.  What kinds of evil things do hands accomplish?  Hands steal, hit wives and children, pull triggers, light fires, hold crack pipes, sell drugs, etc.  The list goes on and on.  In this verse, “hands” represent all the things that we do that are evil.
  • Jesus says that we’d be better off to go through life handless than to miss out on Heaven.  He’s warning us to take whatever steps are necessary to clean up our actions.  Undoubtedly the command to cut off the offending hand is figurative and hyperbolic.  He means that anything that causes a person to fall into sin should be removed immediately.  That could be a lot of things—different things to different people.
  • Jesus follows up the exhortation by loosely quoting Isaiah 66:24 from the Septuagint, the Greek version of the OT.  Moreover, He does it not once, but three times—in verse 44, 46, and 48.

Verses 45-46: “If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than, having your two feet, to be cast into hell, 46 where ‘THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED.’” 
  • What do feet do?  Feet trespass, take us to places we shouldn’t go, help us to run from responsibility, kick people when they are down, tread on the weak, stumble at imagined affronts.  Feet carry us into trouble and into sin.
  • Jesus is saying that we need to jettison anything that carries us into sin, anything that makes it easy to go “there.”  Better to be without feet and have to be pushed up to Heaven’s gate in a wheelchair, than to walk into hell on our own two good feet.

Verses 47-48: “If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell, 48 where ‘THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED.’” 
  • What do our eyes do that is so evil?  Our eyes cause us to lust for things we should not desire, they see faults in others, they look down on people who are not like us, they seek out filthy images in movies, magazines, and monitors.  Eyes are the gateway that leads directly to the heart, mind, and soul.  Jesus says that it would be better to be blind and have to be led to the door of Heaven with our hand on an angel’s shoulder than to be able to see our way clearly to walk into hell on our own.
  • Once again, these three warnings are not intended to be taken literally.  Jesus is not encouraging us to become weirdo ascetics.  We know that the seat of sin is the heart of man, the soul, not the hand, foot, and eye, nor any other organ of the body.

Verse 49: “For everyone will be salted with fire.” 
  • This is a preview of coming attractions, like they say on the theater marquis.  The day is coming when judgment will be carried out.  Everyone’s life will be examined.  No one will escape getting looked at and evaluated.
  • At this point it is important to note that the Bible clearly teaches that there will be two very different kinds of judgments at the end—one for believers, and the other for unbelievers.  The outcomes will be totally different.  Unbelievers will be sentenced and cast into hell.  Believers will be evaluated, rewarded and ushered into Heaven.  Big difference.  But both groups can expect to stand before God.
  • Fire in Scripture represents judgment of one kind or another.  That’s because fire does two things: it refines and purifies gold and other precious metals; it burns away wood, hay, stubble, and other worthless stuff until nothing is left but ashes.
  • For Christians every hint of sectarianism, of denominational pride, of theological elitism, and of religious hypocrisy will be burned away.  Those kinds of things will never be allowed to enter into Heaven.  God will burn away our pride, our brand-loyalty, our holier-than-thou attitudes, and our intolerance of the way other Christians worship God.  In God’s sight all those things are toxic and have to be burned away.

Verse 50: “Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty again?  Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” 
  • Salt is one of the most amazing minerals on earth.  Nothing else comes close to having as many beneficial properties as salt.  Salt has had a profound impact on human civilization throughout recorded history.  Wars have been fought over salt.  Salt has been used as currency.  The Romans paid their soldiers’ wages partly in salt (Latin sal è salarium è salary).  For centuries it was used as medicine.  The list goes on and on.  The Salt Institute claims that there are over 14,000 documented practical uses for salt (
  • Jesus passed judgment on salt when He said: “Salt is good!”  However, His very next word was “BUT.”  Then He posed a philosophical question: namely, “What do you do with salt that has become unsalty?”  In reality, salt can’t become unsalty.  It can wear away, be diluted down to nothing, be burned up, be absorbed, etc.  But remember that this was just a rhetorical question, a teaching question.  Jesus was not giving a science lesson about the properties of salt.
  • Jesus told His disciples in Matthew 5:13, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how will it be made salty again?  It is good for nothing any more, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.”  When operating properly salt heals, preserves, protects, and enhances many aspects of life.  But if salt gets adulterated with other substances, other chemicals, it can be made unpalatable.  People would look at it and say, “The label says that it’s salt but it sure tastes weird!  I think I’ll pass.  There’s something wrong with that stuff.”  Salt can also get dirty.  Impurities can get mixed in with it—dirt, twigs, dust, hair, etc.  In that case, you might as well throw it out onto the path where at least it will help keep the weeds down.

For me there are two big lessons that come out of this morning’s text.  First, I need to be very careful of my attitude toward Christians who are not just like me.  It is so easy to become judgmental and intolerant of others who love Jesus just as much as I do, yet do not agree with all my theological conclusions, nor worship the way I do.  That’s OK.  I need to love and accept them anyway, and not judge them.  God will sort out all that stuff someday and set us all straight.  In the meantime, I need to be careful not to be like the Pharisees.
Secondly, I don’t want to become one of those Christians who has lost his saltiness.  I don’t want the Lord to look at me and wonder what on earth I’m good for.  I don’t want to live out my life having no eternal effect on people around me.  I don’t want to have to stand before God someday and have Him say, “Mike, I gave you everything you needed to serve Me faithfully, but you did nothing with it.  You left no footprint in the world to show that you had ever been there.”  I don’t want to look back at a life that never pointed others to the Savior.  I don’t want people to remember me as a nice guy who never ruffled anybody’s feathers, least of all the devil’s.

         What has stood out to you today?  Is their some practical insight that you have gleaned from the text or from something I said about it?  What is the take-home part for you today?

Monday, February 15, 2010

"Love Is Not Puffed Up" - (2/14/10)

Today is St. Valentine’s Day, the “Day of Love”, the day of chocolates, and Vermont Teddy Bears, and PajamaGrams, and jewelry, and mushy Hallmark Cards, and fancy dinners at expensive restaurants, etc.  The celebration harks back to the year A.D. 269 when a Christian minister in Rome by the name of Valentinus was martyred at the orders of the Roman Emperor, Claudius II, for assisting the hated Christians by performing secret, non-sanctioned weddings.  He sacrificed his life for the sake of others.  He risked everything for his belief in love and the sanctity of Christian marriage.
Of course, it is also true that Hallmark Cards, chocolate factories, lingerie companies, teddy-bear manufacturers, and jewelry stores have all cashed in on St. Valentine’s Day in a big way!  But we shouldn’t allow that fact to keep us from expressing our love to our spouses and sweethearts and demonstrating that love in practical ways.
Having said that, we need to remember that real love is not something we turn on or off like a faucet.  If you only show love to your wife on Valentine’s Day then it isn’t real love.  Real love is a choice, a covenant that we make to keep on loving and doing loving things for that other person.

The Bible is the greatest textbook on love that has ever been written.  In fact, it is one long love story all the way from Genesis to Revelation describing how much God loves us, and what He has done to prove it.  But there is one special passage that really focuses on the quality of that love.  It is I Corinthians 13 that has been called “the Love Chapter.”  Listen as I read verses 1-8 to you from the New King James Version:
1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.  2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.  4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  8 Love never fails.

Did you notice that phrase in verse 4? – “Love is not puffed up.”  That phrase intrigues me, so much so that I’ve used that for the title of today’s message.  Today we are going to continue our study in the Gospel of Mark but it so happens that our text for today has much to teach us about the real nature of Christian love.  And I believe that it also provides us with a clear illustration of what Paul meant when he said that real love “is not puffed up and does not seek its own.”  Open your Bibles to Mark 9:30-37.

Verse 30: From there they went out and began to go through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know about it.
  • “From there.”  From where?  We don’t know specifically because the text doesn’t tell us but the event immediately preceding this verse occurred either in Caesarea Philippi or in one of the mountain villages close by where Jesus had cast a demon out of a young man at the request of the boy’s father.  Now Jesus and the Twelve have left there and are headed down into the region of Galilee closer to the lake.
  • But why did Jesus not want His whereabouts to be common knowledge?  Again, He was controlling the timing of these events leading up to His final journey to Jerusalem and the cross that awaited Him there.

Verse 31: For He was teaching His disciples and telling them, “The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later.”
  • He was teaching His disciples and telling them.”  These two verbs are in the Greek imperfect tense indicating that He was telling His disciples repeatedly, not just once.  He was hammering them with the truth of what was to come.  At this stage of the game these were the high-priority they needed to know and understand.  What things?
  • Look again at the content of His instruction.  He was telling them exactly what was going to happen to Him in Jerusalem.  He didn’t want it to come as a surprise so He went over the details again and again.

Verse 32: But they did not understand this statement, and they were afraid to ask Him.
  • They were slow to comprehend.  But why?  I believe that what He was telling them seemed too horrific to be believable.  It was just too awful to take seriously.  Yet He had never lied to them in the past.  So they apparently concluded that He must have been speaking allegorically rather than literally.  Still, it didn’t make sense to them.  The idea that Jesus would deliberately walk into a trap that would result in His own death was totally off their maps.
  • And why do you think they were they afraid to ask Jesus for clarification concerning His instruction to them?  Had He ever been mean or rude to them before when they asked Him questions?  No.  I believe they were simply embarrassed at their own ignorance.  Before I became a pastor I was a schoolteacher and a seminary professor so I understand this phenomenon very well, and most of you do too.  In a classroom setting many students would prefer to sit there in a fog, understanding nothing, than to raise their hand and ask the teacher for help.  They would rather risk getting it wrong on the test than to look and feel stupid in the eyes of the teacher or their fellow-students.  I think this is how the disciples felt and why they kept quiet.

Verse 33: They came to Capernaum; and when He was in the house, He began to question them, “What were you discussing on the way?”
  • “They came to Capernaum.”  You’ll remember that Capernaum sat right on the edge of the Sea of Galilee.  It was a small fishing village of less than 1,500 people.  It was also the hometown of Peter, Andrew, James, and John, and probably some of the other disciples.  While we don’t know for sure whose house He entered, you’ll notice that the text says He entered into “the house.”  Mark deliberately uses the definite article.  I believe, as do many others, that there’s a very good chance that it was Peter’s house.  That would make perfect sense because Jesus and the fellows had stayed there on other occasions.
  • “What were you discussing on the way?”  I’ve told you before that whenever Jesus asked His disciples questions it was never to gain information.  There was nothing they could possibly tell Him that He didn’t already know.  However, Jesus posed this probing question to open the door for Him to teach them a very important spiritual lesson.  You can bet your hat that He already knew exactly what they had been arguing about as they had walked along the road.

Verse 34: But they kept silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another which of them was the greatest.
  • “But they kept silent.”  Yes, they certainly did and it’s obvious why.  As soon as the Master asked that question their consciences were pricked.  In that moment I think they must have looked like the little boy who was caught with his hand in the cookie jar.  The instant that Jesus asked them the question they know that they were in the wrong.  Jesus asked the question out loud but all He got from them was guilty looks, their sheepish silence, and a whole lot of foot shuffling.  I think they were suddenly ashamed to admit that rather than being concerned with His coming death, they were more interested in jockeying for positions of personal greatness in His coming Messianic Kingdom.
  • “For on the way they had discussed with one another which of them was the greatest.”  Can you imagine how that conversation might have gone?  Though what is even more disturbing is how that stupid conversation might have gotten started in the first place.

Verse 35: Sitting down, He called the twelve and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.”
  • Why did Jesus sit down?  For one thing He was probably tired.  They had apparently been walking for most of the day.  The other reason may have been cultural.  It was customary for a rabbi to sit down to teach.  You may remember back to the story told in Luke 4:16-30 of Jesus’ return to Nazareth and His experience in their synagogue.  The text says:
He went to Nazareth, where He had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day He went into the synagogue, as was His custom.  And He stood up to read.  17 The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. Unrolling it, He found the place where it is written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent Me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  20 Then He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on Him, 21 and He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Verse 36: Taking a child, He set him before them, and taking him in His arms, He said to them…
  • There is an old familiar saying that goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”  Object lessons function in the same way.  Jesus, the Master Teacher, first sat down because He had something very important to teach His disciples.  He lowered Himself to the height of a child then He immediately reached out His arms and beckoned a little child to come to Him.  Where did the child come from?  Maybe it was from that household.  Maybe he was Peter’s little grandson.  Maybe he was a little boy who had been watching Jesus from the doorway.  We don’t know.
  • Jesus picked up the little boy and held him on His lap, with His arms around the little guy.  Then He began to teach them about real love.  The disciples’ conversation on the road revealed that their love was puffed up, self-seeking, self-serving, and me-centered.  Jesus’ love, on the other hand, is selfless, focused outward rather than inward, always looking out for the best interests of others.  And that’s the way we should love too, whether we’re talking about loving our spouse, our parents, our Christian brothers and sisters at church, or the people out there in the world who do not yet know the Lord Jesus and are sometimes rather unlovable.

Verse 37: “Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me.”
  • What does Jesus mean by all that?  Well, it’s kind of like this… If you love my grandson, Lucas, it shows that you love Lucas’ daddy, Christopher, which shows that you love me because Chris is my son and Lucas is my grandson.  It’s a package deal.  We go together.  In fact, don’t try to convince me that you love me while you are saying horrible things about my son.  And don’t even think about bad-mouthing Lucas.  I love my son and my grandson and they love me and we go together.
  • Jesus loved that little child He was holding in His arms.  He told the disciples that by truly loving and showing love to that child they were really showing their love for Jesus.  On top of that, to receive Jesus and to love Him means that they love the Father who sent Him.


Bottom line… you can’t love Jesus and hate the people that Jesus loves.  You can’t say that you love God and yet reject the Son whom the Father sent to be the propitiation for our sins.  If you really love God, then you will love Jesus.  And if you really love Jesus, then you will love the people that He so loved that He was willing to die for.

            Real love, genuine Christian love, agape love “suffers long and is kind, does not envy, does not parade itself, is not puffed up, does not behave rudely, does not seek its own.”
            On this Valentine’s Day let’s not limit ourselves to thinking merely about romantic love, but let’s look at all our love relationships and examine ourselves to see if we are living and loving the way Jesus would want us to.

            The Bible says that we are to “be doers of the Word and not hearers only.”  What pearls have you collected from these verses?  What has stood out to you that you plan to take home with you to put into practice?

Monday, February 1, 2010

"I Believe But Help My Unbelief" - (01/31/10)

"I Believe But Help My Unbelief" 

In James 1:8 we learn that “a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.”  But aren’t we all double-minded sometimes?  For example, I want to be a holy man, but at the same time I want to be able to sin sometimes and get away with it and not have it bother my conscience.  I want to be known as an honest man, but sometimes I am tempted to lie, or tell half-truths.  I want to please God, but I also want to please myself.  I’m often pulled two directions.  And when I’m double-minded like that my whole life gets out of kilter.

In today’s passage we are going to hear from a man who, by his own testimony to Jesus, suffered from being double-minded.  Here’s what he said: “Lord, I believe.  Please help me in my unbelief.”  What do you suppose Jesus said back to Him?  Let’s find out.  Turn in your Bibles to Mark, chapter 9.

Verses 9-10: As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.  10 They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant. 
  • We looked at these verses last Sunday but I included them just to remind us of the context.  Jesus had taken Peter, James, and John with Him up the mountain where He was transfigured before their eyes.

Verses 11-13: And they [His disciples] asked Him, “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”  12 Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things.  Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected?  13 But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.” 
  • This question by the disciples came up, I believe, because of the presence of Elijah at the Transfiguration.  They were referring to the well known passage in Malachi 4:5-6 and wondering if this appearing of Elijah was the fulfillment of that prophecy.  That passage says: Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD.  He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.” 
  • However, the answer that Jesus gives points us in another direction.  Back in Luke 1 the angel Gabriel was sent to Zacharias and Elizabeth to announce the birth of their son, John, who would be called John the Baptizer.  In verse 17 the angel said: “And it is he [John] who will go as a forerunner before Him [the Messiah] in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”  This is obviously a reference to the Malachi passage and clearly shows that John was the one who is spoken of there.
  • This fact is further confirmed by the parallel passage in Matt. 17:12-13, But I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished.  So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.”  Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist. 

Verses 14-16: When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them.  15 As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were amazed and ran to greet Him.  16 “What are you arguing with them about?” He asked.
  • Why were they amazed?  Probably because of the timing of the whole thing.  Jesus arrived right when His disciples needed Him the most.  He has a way of doing that for us, doesn’t He?
  • Picture this.  As Jesus and His three guys come down from the mountain, the first thing they see is a bunch of people, including Scribes, surrounding their colleagues.  A big argument was taking place and it looked like the disciples were getting the worst of it.  Suddenly the crowd turns, sees Jesus, and runs up to Him.
  • Jesus asks the group what all the arguing is about.  But remember, Jesus never asked questions to gain information.  He already knew the answers but He wanted the issues expressed openly for all to hear.

Verses 17-18: A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought You my son, who is possessed with a spirit which makes him mute.  18 Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground.  He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid.  I asked Your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not do it.” 
  • Notice that the man says, “I brought my son to You.”  But Jesus wasn’t around so the job fell to Jesus’ disciples.  The man needed Jesus but all he got was a bunch of assistants.
  • The man has diagnosed the problem as being spiritual rather than strictly natural/physical.  He has concluded that an evil spirit is tormenting his son.  By the description of the symptoms I would conclude that he is right, based on some things I witnessed in Brazil.  While many of the symptoms resemble those of an epileptic seizure, the further symptoms described in verse 22 seal the diagnosis for me.
  • Notice that in the absence of Jesus the man appealed to the disciples for help in casting out the demonic spirit but they had no success.  In fact, they failed miserably.

Verse 19: “O unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you?  How long shall I put up with you?  Bring the boy to Me.” 
  • This is an amazing look into the pain in Jesus’ soul.  It was obvious to Him that the disciples were weak because of their unbelief.  This brought a feeling of disappointment and sadness that they still didn’t get it, and I think His frustration was mainly aimed at them.  But in the broader sense, He came to bring light, life, peace, healing, and salvation to the whole world but He was constantly confronted with unbelief, skepticism, hatred, and antagonism on the part of those He came to save.  I believe that this verse gives us a rare glimpse into the personal pain and frustration Jesus that felt.  He was, after all, human as well as divine and the Bible says that He was subject to the same feelings and frustrations that we experience, yet without sin.

Verse 20: And so they brought the boy to Him.  And when he [the spirit] saw Him [Jesus], immediately the spirit threw him [the boy] into a convulsion.  And falling to the ground, he began rolling about and foaming at the mouth. 
  • “When he [the spirit] saw Jesus.”  When you looked into that boy’s eyes another being looked out at you.  I’ve seen that and it is very unnerving.  The demon knew that he was in the presence of the Son of God and he immediately began acting out, trying once again to destroy the boy and impress the crowd.

Verses 21-22: Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”  “From childhood,” he answered.  22 “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him.  But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” 
  • Jesus directs the question to the father but the answer is for the benefit of all those gathered around witnessing this event.
  • The last part of the man’s statement is filled with pain coupled with hope. “But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”  Notice the word “if.”  The man wasn’t sure Jesus could help his boy, but he knew that Jesus was his best and last hope.  Doctors had not been able to help.  Theologians had not been able to help.  And now, even Jesus’ own disciples had failed in their attempt at exorcism.

Verse 23: ’If you can’?” said Jesus.  “Everything is possible for him who believes.” 
  • Jesus immediately picked up on the man’s words, because this whole thing hinged on faith.  That was the only thing in question.  Jesus knew that He had power and authority to heal the boy.  The demon knew that Jesus had the power and authority to cast him out.  The disciples believed that Jesus could do it because they had witnessed it before.  But Jesus here confronts the man about whether or not he believes that Jesus can cure his son.  But I would point out that he has already proved a degree of faith in the fact that he had set out to take his son to Jesus in the first place.

Verse 24: Immediately the boy’s father cried out, “I do believe; help me in my unbelief!”
  • You can hear the emotion in the man’s voice.  It says he “cried out.”  And I love the man’s response because he is so honest.  He admits to Jesus that in the dark corners of his faith there are still some resistant pockets of unbelief.  He did believe, yet he was acutely conscious of the fact that his faith and trust in Christ were imperfect, to say the least.
  • That is so like us, even those of us who have been Christians for many years.  There are situations in which we find ourselves acting like total unbelievers, worrying and fretting over whether or not God is going to come through for us this time, even if He has come through for us a hundred times in the past.  I think we all have some unbelief mixed in with our belief.  We need to pray this prayer often to the Lord.  “Lord, I believe.  But please help me with my unbelief.”

Verse 25: When Jesus saw that a crowd was rapidly gathering, He rebuked the evil spirit.  “You deaf and dumb spirit,” He said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”
  • Obviously Jesus believed that the boy was being tormented by a demon.  Jesus did not address the problem as an illness, like He did on many other occasions.  This was a clear case of demon oppression and Jesus addressed His remarks to the unclean spirit.
  • For a long time people have argued over the difference between being “demon-possessed” versus “demon-oppressed.”  In truth, the Bible doesn’t draw this distinction.  The Greek word used throughout the NT to describe a person afflicted by demonic spirits is daimonídzomai, or literally “demonized.”  This boy was demonized.

Verses 26-27: The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out.  The boy looked so much like a corpse that most said, “He’s dead.”  27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up. 
  • Demons do not leave quietly or happily.  This spirit had no choice but to obey Jesus but he was obviously angry and tried to damage the boy in the process of leaving.  Once the evil spirit was out of the boy, however, he was made well and whole in every way.  His will was freed up and the symptoms caused by the presence of the demon were all a thing of the past.  Can you imagine the joy that the father felt when he saw all this?

Verses 28-29: After Jesus had gone indoors, His disciples asked Him privately, “Why is it that we could not cast it out?”  29 He replied, “This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer.” [N.B. A few manuscripts add, “and fasting” but these words are not in most of the manuscripts.] 
  • Notice Jesus’ words, “this kind,” informing the disciples (and us) that there are different kinds of demons, some stronger than others, though all are subject to Him, and us, when we deal with them in His strength and by His authority.  From Jesus’ words to the nine disciples who had tried to cast out the demon and failed, I conclude that they had attempted it without relying on God’s power.  The formula for failure goes like this: puny faith + prayerlessness = spiritual impotency.
  • I feel sorry for the disciples in this story.  They were good guys, good Christians.  They wanted to help the boy.  They tried their best.  They did all the things they had seen Jesus do in the past.  They used the same words that Jesus had used, etc.  However, they had been unable to do battle with even one stinkin’ little weasel of a demon.  They didn’t have enough mojo to cast that bad boy out.  How do you think that made them feel?  Embarrassed?  Silly?  Weak?  Failures as followers of Christ?  Probably all these things, and more.
  • But Jesus used this occasion to teach them an important lesson about spiritual warfare.  But don’t be too hard on these guys because you have to remember that the NT didn’t even exist yet.  They couldn’t just go to the BOOK for answers.  In fact, some of these guys were the ones who would write it later on.  For example, they hadn’t ever read Ephesians 6:10-18, which says, “Be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power.  11 Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil.  12 For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.  13 Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil.  Then after the battle you will still be standing firm.  14 Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness.  15 For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared.  16 In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil.  17 Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.  18 Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion.” [NLT] 

          I said a moment ago that the formula for failure is: puny faith + prayerlessness = spiritual impotency.  So what is the formula for spiritual success in dealing with the devil?  I guess it would go something like this: solid faith + prayerful dependence = spiritual power.
          In the parallel passage to this one in Matthew 17 (NLT), when the disciples asked the Master why they had been unsuccessful in casting out the demon, He responded: “You don’t have enough faith.  I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move.  Nothing would be impossible.”  Notice that Jesus speaks here of the quantity of their faith.  He said, “You don’t have enough faith.”  That’s one issue—the quantity of faith.  The other issue has to do with the object of our faith.  In confronting the enemy, if we are trusting in our experience, our knowledge of Scripture, our vast wisdom, our talents, our spiritual maturity, etc. etc. then we will fail for sure.  Apparently the disciples went at that exorcism like they were all professionals who knew what they were doing.  After all, they had seen Jesus do it!  It just didn’t look that hard.  From Jesus’ reply I have to conclude that unshakable faith in Christ and prayerful dependence on the Spirit are the two necessary things in order to experience spiritual victories over the devil and his minions.

         What is the take-away for you from this passage?  What spiritual lesson is the big one for you?  Why?

About Me

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Since 1994 I have been the pastor of Sellwood Baptist Church in Portland, OR. Before that I was a missionary in South Brazil for many years. Until just recently I have also served as a police chaplain with the Portland Police Bureau. Now, however, God has a new assignment for us. My wife and I have been appointed with WorldVenture and are preparing to move to Ireland to help plant a new church in Sligo, a small city in NW Ireland. I'm married to Ramel, a crazy, beautiful redhead that I love more than life itself. We have three great kids, Jonathan, Chris, and Simoni who have given us ten wonderful grandchildren. We are truly blessed.

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