Bewildered by the Resurrection? Mark 16.1-8 – RBT Notes, 30th June

“Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (‭Mark‬ ‭16‬.8).

If ever a book had an unconvincing ending, then this is it, surely? The resurrection is the great claim and challenge of the Christian faith. It is Christianity’s bold assertion that Christ conquered death, when He rose bodily from the tomb. In this resurrection we have the proof that death is not the end. And in this resurrection we have the assurance that those who die in faith in Jesus will not fear the judgement seat of God, but will be raised to everlasting life in heaven. A Man lives forever in heaven, and has prepared a place there for us, too.

So why finish this extraordinary witness to Jesus’ life, ministry, death and then resurrection with a picture of trembling women running in terror from the tomb? Did Mark really think that his readers will be won over by the claim that it was women who saw the tomb empty? Afterall, a woman’s evidence wasn’t admissible in a first century Jewish court. And why the bewilderment, when, according to Mark’s often-reported words of Christ, they were assured by Him that He would rise from the dead? Forgetfulness, misunderstanding and then fear aren’t a good basis for anyone’s witness, or personal faith, are they?

True. But there is a faith which is honest. There is a faith which is born and nurtured in the context of doubts, mistakes, and false starts as well as setbacks. Likewise, there is a witness to Jesus Christ which might actually be authentic because it admits its own stumbles. No, an angel doesn’t go and tell the world that Jesus is alive. And yes, it could be left to these nervous, scared women to do that, joined later of course by even more nervous and far more scared men. There’s actually no good historical evidence that the verses slipped into many Bibles after this event were ever written by Mark. The facts suggest that they were someone else’s bright idea, designed with good intention to “tidy things up”, giving a more impressive ending to the Gospel, and maybe a more convincing one.

Well, I’m unconvinced. And the longer I try and live the Christian Faith the more I’m convinced by, and marvel at, the genius of Mark’s ending as we have it, finishing at v.8. Mark wants to lay this resurrection event before us in its stark challenge. Did it happen? Did Jesus Christ really rise from the dead? Was the tomb empty? Was an angel really there? Did the women really witness it? And if they did, and it’s all true, what does it mean? And should we believe it, too?

Are you convinced about Jesus, as we leave this Gospel? Or are you bewildered, perhaps, and need time to weigh the evidence more carefully? We cannot be indifferent before such an incredible life, death and empty grave. As Mark began his Gospel, He teaches us that the coming of Jesus is Good News. Do we understand that? Will we open our lives to His Lordship? He is, as Mark teaches us, the Son of God. We need Him.

 

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The Facts. Mark 15.21-47 – RBT Notes, 29th June

“Was crucified, died and was buried.” So reads the Apostles’ Creed, as it simply states the end facts of the life of Jesus. One astonishing life, and one terrible, terrible death.

Agony. The physical agony of crucifixion is impossible to reckon with. A man is stretched out, doomed to bear the weight of his body by the nails that hold his hands and feet, maybe with a tiny wooden ledge for his buttocks. Breathing becomes a terrifying and excruciating ordeal. He is literally fighting his own pain threshold to force his chest upwards in order to take each breath. This death is sadism at every second. Jesus will take the pain, with no sedative (v.43).

Insults. There is no privacy, as the public nature of crucifixion is designed to deepen its horror. Jesus takes insults from fellow-sufferers, and from the self-righteous, sin-blinded leaders who watch Him die (vv.29-32). They will wound a helpless man with their words, why not? Jesus will not respond, expect only to pray for their forgiveness.

Cries. Jesus does cry out, not in His anguish, but in a word to God. His cry of abandonment, citing Ps.22.1, is a plea for a cynical world to glimpse the pain that He’s experiencing, not only the wrenching agony of crucifixion, but the horror of abandonment by His Father, as that Psalm prefigured (v.34). The embrace of eternity between Father and Son has been torn apart, righteousness is shattered by the sin-bearing of the Son, the light of divine fellowship is broken. When He cries a second time, it a cry, not of despair, but of accomplishment. The Temple curtain is torn, signifying that the separation between God and humanity caused by sin is dealt with (vv.37-38). Man may approach God through Christ, who is the atoning sacrifice for our sin. And trying to grasp this courageous death, another man cries out, a hardened, probably cynical Roman centurion. He marvels at Jesus’ death (v.40); don’t you?

Aftermath. There is nothing left to do except to bury the body of Jesus and to grieve (vv.42-47). The friends of Jesus would have been broken-hearted, His enemies elated, and others doubtless very confused. If the tomb were the final resting-place of Jesus, then people would certainly have shared stories of this remarkable life and Jesus’ teachings for some time yet. But resting-place? No. Wait for the third day. If they were astonished at His death, they will face a challenge more far more extraordinary. And so do we.

 

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The King must Die. Mark 15.1-20 RBT Notes, 28th June

Mark records very little from the trial. Other Gospel writers give more details about the charges, and the false witnesses. Mark knows this was an illegal trial which broke the Jewish legal regulations on many points. To him it is obvious that Jesus will never get a fair hearing. And that was no surprise to Jesus. Remember, “He knew what was in a man” (Jn.2.25), including man’s natural hatred of God’s authority. And now, as God stands before a human court, human justice will hound Him, pass sentence, and condemn Him.

imageIs He a King? Of course, says Jesus (v.2). Is He guilty of the many trumped-up charges brought against Him? Of course not, Jesus’ silence tells them (v.5). Should the prisoner be released? Of course. But the wrong man goes free. Wanting to make an unconvincing show of their generosity, the Sanhedrin get Pilate to offer the release of a prisoner (v.8). They the use their power with the crowds to have Barabas released. Pilate is not convinced, as he knows their agenda, but they do all they can to pressure the crowd, and therefore Pilate, into releasing a guilty man in the place of the innocent One (vv.9-14).

Human power always plots and struggles to put God in the dock and ensure that man is left mocking the mercy of God. Jesus stands before them, full of truth, anointed with grace and bringing forgiveness. They want to deny the truth He brings, and they spurn His grace. Jesus is beautiful in His brave trust in God as He stands before a mocking, persecuting world.

The world mocks and ridicules Jesus (compare vv.16-20). But mockery is often just the precursor to a darker, fiercer persecution. The King is on His way to meet the Last Enemy, and He will make a mockery of death’s power.

Courage for the Cross. Mark 14.27-72 – RBT Notes, 27th June

Jesus has shared the Passover cup with His friends. He has shared journeys, opposition, laughter, joys, mockery, meals and many other life experiences. Now He must go alone, to be ready to take a cup which only He can drink. They go to the Garden called Gethsemane. Jesus goes further with the three, then leaves them to pray together (vv.32-35).

And who are we watching? A scared man? A cowardly, or angry man? We watch and we barely begin to understand the agonies of a man who is facing death. It is not just His own death which Jesus contemplates. He is facing the death He must die for all of God’s elect. And not just their death, but He’s facing the nature of death itself, a cutting off from the blessing of life as the judgment of death. Go further still, as Jesus does: He’s in anguish because that death is the death which absorbs the curse of God. The cup is a cup of curse. Adam and Eve, and all humanity with them, refused to drink from the blessings God shared with them in the Garden. Instead they, and we, try to drain life of all of its joys without reference to the Giver. This is the essence of sin, a cutting-off of God from His gifts, and living for them rather than for Him. Jesus, our Righteous Substitute, must take that cup for us, and He must be cut off, in death. No one else can do it for us, and He takes the will of God to Himself in astonishing obedience (v.36).

The disciples cannot keep awake and pray, nor do they have any power to help Jesus when Judas comes, with the religious authorities and the soldiers. A rush of blood to Peter’s head makes him swipe at one of the arresting party, but Jesus rebukes his foolishness (vv.43-50). Who, afterall, has all power; and who is laying Himself down willingly? In the face of such power, swords and political titles mean nothing.

Remember this, as Jesus goes before the religious rulers. They rage, and extract a confession from Him. The only one He has to give is that He is the ruling Lord. Jesus uses the image we’ve heard Him use before, from Daniel 7, as He affirms Himself to be the one from Daniel’s vision, the Son of Man who comes into all authority. Listen to those words again: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (‭Daniel‬ ‭7‬.13-14). “I am He”, Jesus tells the astonished and then furious High Priest (v.63). ‬‬

The world will rage and spit at the Christ, just as these men did that night (vv.63-65). The disciples, despite all that Peter and the others said, deserted Him, just as Jesus said they would (vv.66-72, compare vv.27-31). What about us? Here is the One who goes to die. He also goes to reign, and He establishes His rule through His life-giving death on the Cross. And we, His subjects, kneel as He knelt in Gethsemane. We kneel, though, not praying for the courage to win salvation for ourselves or others, but for the grace to receive it at Jesus’ hands. And believers do.

 

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Love Outpoured. Mark 14.1-26 – RBT Notes, 26th June

She pours out love…(vv.1-12)

This episode is topped and tailed by the wicked plans of Jesus’ enemies. They want to arrest Him, and following the event Mark records, they find a way to do so (vv.1-2, 10-11). In the midst of their darkness there shines the light of love. One woman loves Jesus, because she’s discovered His love for her. That love should flow into the lives of the onlookers, but their hearts are dammed up against it. Will ours be, too?

There is a party, as there often is when Jesus is in town. The woman is unnamed, but Jesus says that her love will be remembered till the end of time (vv.8-9). What does she do? She takes the most expensive item that either she or probably her entire family or even community owned, and she gives it away. She literally pours her love and worship out over Jesus. This perfume can’t be given, or shared out for safe-keeping, but must be poured out, given away in one go so as never to be recovered. This is what she does (v.3).

A waste? That’s what some grumbling disciples said, and probably all the others there that night felt (v.4). When they rebuked this woman they probably felt that Jesus would have been pleased with them (v.5). They wanted to appear that they had a concern for the poor. Maybe some did. Certainly, though, many of them were shocked at the woman’s devotion to Jesus; and maybe they were a little envious of it, too. They wanted to make this act of devotion safe, by saying that it was foolish. The truth is that even believers are often hostile to radical discipleship when they see it in others. It makes them too uncomfortable. I believe that this is just what was happening here.

Jesus defends her (v.6). He sees this act of worship as fitting devotion towards Him, even as an anointing prior to His burial (v.8). He also says that you and I will remember her love (v.9). And we do.

But will people remember your love? They may, for a while, remember you with thanks for being reliable, trustworthy, punctual, conscientious, or gentle. This woman’s act is urging us to go far, far further. Don’t overcome the light of sacrificial Gospel love with the darkness of selfish and insincere discipleship. It won’t work. Only lives given fully, sacrificially and joyfully for Jesus will be remembered, and will last forever.

 
…because He pours out love

The Passover Feast is here, the high point of the Jewish calendar, and the great statement of Jewish identity, when a nation looked to God to remember His rescuing power and love. There in that Upper Room, Jesus gives His disciples the strangest command and ritual, to eat the Passover bread and to drink the Passover wine (vv.22-25). He has already warned them that one of them would betray Him (vv.17-21). Now He commands them to eat the symbols of His body and His blood. In doing that, He is saying that He is the true Passover, the true and only place of God’s rescuing power and love.

imageA betrayer, and the One Betrayed, eating and drinking together. With them a room of confused and possibly frightened disciples. This is the Christian life. We let Jesus down, and we misunderstand Him, and still He offers Himself to us in a love without condition, and with astonishing grace. He loves those who will desert Him, He sits with a betrayer, He speaks words of comfort, and words of invitation. He is readying Himself to pour Himself out for the sins of God’s people. Yes, the woman in Simon’s house poured out a love which astonished her onlookers, as well as us today. How much more should Jesus’ self-giving astonish us, and move us to fresh worship and joy? Humble yourself, lay yourself low at Jesus’ feet, and give Him your love in glad surrender.

The Chapter you’ve got to understand. Mark 13 – RBT Notes, 25th June

Nothing lasts forever (vv.1-8)

The disciples loved the Temple. Everyone in their nation did, and even the pagans acknowledged its majesty. So it was maybe for a bit of lightening the atmosphere that the disciples remarked to Jesus how impressive it was. And Jesus’ reply? “God will destroy it all” (vv.1-2).

Jerusalem is the place of the King, and Jesus is giving indisputable signs of His Kingly authority. So the disciples ask thing one: when is this Kingdom coming (vv.3-4)? Now begins a reply so important that it is recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke. And these crucial words have often been misunderstood by the church, to the church’s great loss. They are a warning against the complacent, both in Jesus’ day, and in ours. The King is speaking. What is He saying?
Jesus urges us to be alert, and discerning. His followers must listen to the competing claims of a world which is falling apart, and is terrifying. His own must not lose their heads, nor their faith (vv.5-8).

We naturally ask, where and when will these things happen? Our default mode is to interpret these predictions as speaking of a colossal and worldwide meltdown, before the Return of Christ. It’s just that the text is not saying that. Oh we think it is; but that is our supposition, not what Jesus is saying. Let’s read on for more clues about Jesus’ warnings.

 

No one’s without warning (vv.9-23)

Jesus speaks of persecutions, kangaroo courts, floggings, expulsion from synagogues, and family betrayal. He warns of a great trial that will come, but not before the Gospel is preached to all nations. It’s that last detail which make many assume that the Lord is speaking about the end of the world. My contention is that the text is talking about a different world – the world of first century Judea, as experienced by the first believers. That is the world that Jesus says is melting down, under God’s judgment.

This makes great sense of the references to synagogues as places of hostility, which we know from the Book of Acts was the case. It also makes sense of talk of trials and flogging, which the first disciples experienced, as the church was birthed. But what about the reference to preaching to all nations (v.10)? Isn’t that emphatic proof that Jesus was talking about the end of time? No. Remember at Pentecost the nations of the ancient world were at Jerusalem, when the Gospel’s message burst forth upon them in Holy Spirit power. Those new believers in turn took the Gospel back to their nations. And what about the two specific references to the Temple and Judea in v. 14? We need to know our history, and read it alongside the words of Christ. His meaning becomes clear when we look at the terrifying siege of Jerusalem by the Roman armies in 70AD. And then we learn with a jolt that it’s this very event that Jesus is predicting, and giving instructions for.

The siege was the ultimate Roman response to Jewish rebellion against their rule. It also came after growing waves of persecution of Christians in Judea, which was marked by the very things we’ve heard Jesus speaking about. As the armies poured into the city, the Temple was desecrated by the sacrifices of pigs, the setting up of the Roman Standard, and the presence of pagans in the Temple (ie the abomination that causes desolation). The bloodshed that followed claimed hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives, possibly up to one million. It was an utter massacre. Little wonder that Jesus warned His followers to flee. And history records that they did. Even if we often get this passage wrong, they didn’t, as they understood the warning, and took it to heart.

 

Everyone will see the power of Christ (vv.24-31)

The words of Christ take a turn here. Jesus uses the language of the stars, sun and moon to speak of a change of spiritual powers, which is a familiar motif in Scripture. If you’re looking for an eclipse or ecological disaster, then you’re missing the point! Jesus isn’t saying that the world’s in meltdown, but that the enemies of the Gospel, whose centre was Jerusalem and the system of Jewish religion, come down with a crash at the destruction of Jerusalem. The power of Christ is now on display to the world. This is what vv. 26-27 mean: Jesus has come into His authority in heaven, and now sends out His Gospel messengers to gather the elect into the Kingdom through their repentance and faith. And He is still doing that to this day. King Jesus reigns, in word and deed: hallelujah!

And if you’re still not persuaded by this understanding of this passage, then how do you understand v.30? We are not the generation Jesus was referring to, but His disciples were, and they witnessed these words coming true. Or how do you read this promise?

 

No one will escapade the judgment of Christ (vv.32-37)

And now – at last – Jesus refers to what we know as the Second Coming. Jesus has ascended to heaven, and not even He knows the appointed day of His Return. Veiled in mystery as that day is, one word is given to us, a word even a child can understand: watch! (v.37).
And think about it: Jesus predicts the end of a nation. He does so accurately, in the face of suspicion and hostility. His word comes true. And He reigns with all power. More than that, He is working His rule to save lost, frightened and helpless people. How wonderful.

 

So, are you surprised by this chapter? Are you shocked? Are you encouraged? And are you submitting to the speaking, ruling, judging and saving Christ? “Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling. Kiss the Son, or He will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction. For His wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in Him” (‭Ps. ‭2‬.11-12‬)

 

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