One of the most important things a boxer needs to know is how to “take a punch”. Without that knowledge, the rest of his or her boxing abilities won’t amount to much just after the “ding” of the bell at the beginning of round one. It isn’t only about how to deliver a blow to the opponent (though that will help score points for the judges), it is about how to receive a blow and remain standing. Judges take a dim view of boxers who take naps during the fight, and there are no famous narcoleptic boxers. In opening our lesson from the life and ministry of Jesus today, I don’t have in mind the sport of boxing, at this moment, as much as the way this truth about “taking a punch” plays in everyday life. I especially like the words of Bill Cosby, when he said: “Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.” Humor is certainly one great way to cope with the troubles and tough situations of our lives – but there are others. Sometimes the punch hits so hard, laughing isn’t really an option.
In this lesson, we want to look at another way to cope – one taught by Jesus to His Disciples before His departure from them. Jesus helped the men learn endurance in the face of bad news and rising troubles – and He did it primarily through His example. He modeled endurance and poise when bad news arrived so that His disciples had ample opportunity to see how to face adversity and its accompanying fear with a sober but positive spirit. The setting in the Gospels is a time nearing the end of the “Popular Ministry” and the beginning of a series of “withdrawals” of Jesus to the regions further afield from the shores of the Kinnerret (the Sea of Galilee). The stories from this period of ministry can help us understand what a disciple needs to see and experience in order to be matured and ready for a life of service to Jesus – and that is the point of the record. In this section of the Gospel of Mark (found in chapter six), five stories were deliberately strung together to help us examine even further how Jesus trained the Disciples for the work they had ahead in the face of devastating news. None of them knew the scope of the work of the Kingdom – but Jesus did. He knew how to prepare them, and how to leave a record behind that helps us understand how to prepare the “diamond in the rough” follower of Jesus and make him or her into an ambassador for the King of Kings. This string of accounts led to a singular truth…
Key Principle: Real ministry looks past the personal hurt of bad responses to faithfully represent God’s message to people. Some will respond positively, others will not. Our work is the representation – not the outcome.
Let’s face it, that is easier to say than to do. We all want to be affirmed by people around us. At the same time, Jesus didn’t train the men to do what they would naturally do, but what was counter-intuitive. Look at the “training stories”:
Story One: Jesus Returns to Nazareth
After refusing to go out and see His family while preaching in Capernaum, Jesus probably expected a “chilly reception” back in Nazareth – but He went for another visit:
Mark 6:1 Jesus went out from there and came into His hometown; and His disciples followed Him. 2 When the Sabbath came, He began to teach in the synagogue; and the many listeners were astonished, saying, “Where did this man [get] these things, and what is [this] wisdom given to Him, and such miracles as these performed by His hands? 3 “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?” And they took offense at Him. 4 Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his [own] relatives and in his [own] household.” 5 And He could do no miracle there except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them. 6 And He wondered at their unbelief. And He was going around the villages teaching.
There are three parts to the story recorded in these short verses, and each part offers a practical lesson to the modern believer:
The Learning Situation (6:1-2)
The first part of the record recalls the teaching work of Jesus for His Disciples: Jesus intended a learning situation and the disciples were observers of the lesson (6:1). They observed the way people responded to Jesus, because in the future they would need to recognize proper and improper responses. In this case the responses were (6:2-3):
• They were amazed but not open: “From where did He get these things?” They weren’t in disagreement as much as in disbelief of the source.
• They saw wisdom but not its source: “What is this wise teaching given to Him?” They acknowledged the wise words, but not as from God.
• They saw power but it was blunted by familiarity: “What are these miracles wrought by His hands?”
People readily admitted what Jesus said and did caused marvel beyond their expectation. Yet, they assumed He must have taken His teaching from somewhere (or someone) else, as if to discount the message. Here is the truth: One of the oldest methods the enemy has used against truth is to “tag” the bearer with some deficiency (which is usually easy) and thereby discount the message they bring. This is effective against the church – because, after two thousand years of both good and bad works, with both true but errant followers as well as some hucksters that claimed to be followers – there is plenty to complain about in Church history. In modern witness for Jesus, most people aren’t offended at Jesus and what He taught – but rather the flawed and ragged witness of the church over time raises their complaints.
What can we do? Some proclaim the church must somehow make greater strides to “adjust the message of Jesus” to make it more palatable – especially when Jesus doesn’t offer sound bites that fit into the current flow of tolerance laced thinking. Yet, I believe that isn’t the solution at all – because it is focuses on the wrong problem. Let the church focus more on the “proclamation with clarity” of the actual message of Jesus as He gave it, and the world will have opportunity to be invited to Him or offended at Him – that is their choice. In other words, our job isn’t to make the message easier to receive – but nor is it to make it more difficult by living in conflict with His words. The believer must make his or her life choices stay out of the way of clear proclamation of Jesus and His Word. As a result, the believer who lives for Jesus quietly may well help remove an obstacle for the Gospel, while the loud believer who shouts from the street corner the Gospel but does not live in harmony with God’s Word actually detracts from the Gospel. The lesson for the first part of the story is that we must not be derailed when someone attempts to push aside the message of Jesus because someone they know has lived out Jesus badly. We must insist on making the message about what Jesus said and did – for therein is the Gospel. The truth isn’t always found in the church (sadly) but it is always found in the Savior.
The People Reacted (6:3)
The second part of the story recalled the people’s reaction to Jesus. Don’t forget the Disciples were watching and learning from the Master’s responses. The objections to listening fully to His message were simply about His “familiarity” to them. They couldn’t accept that the spectacular words and works were a result of anything His family could have taught Him since they knew His father and mother, sisters and brothers; and they were nothing special. This was instructive, because the Disciples needed to know that it would happen to them in the days ahead – people would see deep truth in their message, but write it off out of familiarity.
It is easy to miss the mistake in the people’s thinking, but critical that we do so. The issue was the identification of the SOURCE of the power and proclamation of Jesus. The people of His town rightly discerned that neither came from Jesus’ family or upbringing (though there is no suggestion that Mary and Joseph hindered the development of Jesus’ righteous path). The issue was one of assumptions on their part. The people didn’t believe GOD was at work in the room where Jesus was – and couldn’t see past their human connections. This was, and is, a common mistake. When one wants an explanation for the Person and work of Jesus – they must look beyond the earth and into the Heavens. The Gospel of John reminds us that “The Word (which was always with God and from the time before time) became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory.” Jesus wasn’t a man who discovered God or Divine power – He was God who put on human skin. His coming, according to the New Testament, was deliberate and purposed. The source of His power wasn’t Mary or Joseph – quite the opposite. The “parents” were given the opportunity to participate in the work of the Son- not the other way around.
The Savior Responded (6:4-6)
The third part of the story highlighted what the Disciples truly needed to see – because they would experience the same response later in their respective lives on their different fields of mission. In a word, that is “rejection”. Instead of following Jesus, Mark recorded four details:
1. “The people of Nazareth took offense (Gr. skandalízō – properly, set a snare (“stumbling-block”); (figuratively) “to hinder right conduct or thought; to cause to stumble” – literally, “to fall into a trap”) at Jesus.”
2. “Jesus could do few miracles, only a few healings for the sick.”
3. “Jesus wondered (Gr: thaumázō: in this case a proper translation may be – “He was stunned”) at their unbelief.”
4. “Jesus left them and traveled, teaching in other places nearby.”
The words are much clearer in Greek than in English. The people didn’t merely ignore Jesus, they actively hindered His work among them – so Jesus took His work elsewhere. Perhaps they heckled Him, it isn’t clear. Maybe they told Him they didn’t want “His type” in their town. We simply don’t know what was involved, but we know that rejection by people you love is always painful. In fact, that was the story of Jesus’ whole life. “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not,” the Scriptures remind. At His birth, He was rejected by some of Joe’s family as illegitimate. Now He was rejected as working from and in the power of God by His family friends.
Though what the people did isn’t clear, one of the important truths that IS clear, is that the people did not understand is that Jesus was not pushy – and He still isn’t. He offered life, healing and comfort – but He didn’t shove it down their throats if they didn’t want it. When people didn’t want Him – He withdrew. Consider this: That is the tragedy of our time – that we have seen America open its doors to false thinking and dismiss Jesus from our public square. His exit won’t change His power or His Person – but it will change our public square. It will reduce our ability to spread freedom – for that comes as a byproduct of peace within. It will increase our turmoil as a state, and draw out the most degraded passions of men and attempt to legitimate them as palatable and acceptable. If He stays true to past form, Jesus will quietly move off the scene and take His message to people who want to hear it. The difference between God accomplishing incredible work in your midst and not doing so often comes down to this: Will we see our lives from His perspective and live as though what He said is really true?
We press to keep that message here by inviting Jesus to live in us and through us. We show that we are serious about our desire when we live with Him as our Master. We want to so live, that men and women will see our good works and “glorify our Father in Heaven” – because that is what Jesus told us to do. At the same time, if Jesus withdraws, it will be because the nation asked Him to do so. He will withdraw our sense of moral clarity. He will withdraw our ethical certitude and clear thinking. In our arrogance, we will make arduous rules that will nag us with their basic unfairness. Nationally, we will be reduced to bickering, division and dull thinking in regards to the challenging moral issues of our day. Consider this story from the news this week:
Lizzie Deardon of the British publication “Independent” wrote: “Germany’s national ethics council has called for an end to the criminalization of incest between siblings after examining the case of a man who had four children with his sister…Sexual relations between siblings or between parents and their children are forbidden under section 173 of the German criminal code and offenders can face years in prison. But on Wednesday, the German Ethics Council recommended the section be repealed, arguing that the risk of disability in children is not enough to warrant the law and de-criminalizing incest would not remove the huge social taboo around it. The chairman of the council, Christiane Woopen, was among the 14 members voting in favor of repealing section 173, while nine people voted for the ban to continue and two abstained.”
Notice the word “taboo”, because you will be seeing it more and more as we fade away from “right” and “wrong” thinking, and into the morally relative “stigma” thinking. That is what happens when the truth is dismissed and lies are adopted. The writer doesn’t ask WHY the west has upheld in her past rules on human relationships, because they know the answer – it is in the Bible, and was taught by the church for generations.
Now, when we recognize the direction, we needn’t despair. God sees the hearts of His people, hears our prayers, and knows what we do not! The darkness of a society that embraces lies as truth will set up a clearer distinction between those who follow Jesus and those who do not. God is watching! Consider this story:
“One night a house caught fire and a young boy was forced to flee to the roof. The father stood on the ground below with outstretched arms, calling to his son, “Jump! I’ll catch you.” He knew the boy had to jump to save his life. All the boy could see, however, was flame, smoke, and blackness. As can be imagined, he was afraid to leave the roof. His father kept yelling: “Jump! I will catch you.” But the boy protested, “Daddy, I can’t see you.” The father replied, “But I can see you and that’s all that matters.” (Story as told by Donner Atwood).
The simple fact is that some people will reject Jesus – we need to expect this. They did it in front of Him, and they do it now. The Disciples saw it, and they needed to recognize that it wasn’t a rejection of THEM, but a rejection of God’s work among them.
Story Two: The Twelve Sent Out
Continuing with the training of the twelve, Mark explained that after a bad reaction of His hometown crowd, Jesus made His way into the surrounding region with His Disciples watching Him as He taught the crowds. After a short time, He called them together. Mark put it this way:
Mark 6:7 And He summoned the twelve and began to send them out in pairs, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits; 8 and He instructed them that they should take nothing for [their] journey, except a mere staff– no bread, no bag, no money in their belt—9 but [to] wear sandals; and [He added], “Do not put on two tunics.” 10 And He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave town. 11 “Any place that does not receive you or listen to you, as you go out from there, shake the dust off the soles of your feet for a testimony against them.” 12 They went out and preached that [men] should repent. 13 And they were casting out many demons and were anointing with oil many sick people and healing them.
The Disciples were in need of some personal training on the ground, and some of the personal affirmation and excitement that came from participating in care ministry that allowed God’s power to flow through them. Jesus knew what the men needed, and He prepared them to go out with an added endowment of power – for them to have the thrill of God using them (6:7). At the same time, it was necessary to instruct them further in how to prepare themselves. Those instructions included
• Take only a staff to help you walk.
• Don’t take extra food, an extra bag, or extra money.
• Put on your sandals, but don’t take an extra cloak.
• Stay in a home where you are invited.
• Don’t push in a place where your message is not wanted, shake it off and move on.
The men went out. They were preaching a message that sounded like the one some of the men heard from John near the Jordan River some time ago – a message of life change in anticipation of the coming of the King to them. The men validated that the message was “from God” by the signs God empowered them to do in the spiritual realm, as well as the healing God did through them. They were exhilarated by the experience, but more training was necessary.
• They had seen the Master rejected by some and accepted by others.
• They were empowered and saw God use them – but there was more they needed to learn, and Jesus was ready to teach them.
In addition to seeing that some would reject Jesus (in the first story), the Disciples needed to see that some would recognize the power of Jesus, and they would be used of God to lead them to Him!
Story Three: Bad News
Mark 6:14 And King Herod heard [of it], for His name had become well known; and [people] were saying, “John the Baptist has risen from the dead, and that is why these miraculous powers are at work in Him.” 15 But others were saying, “He is Elijah.” And others were saying, “[He is] a prophet, like one of the prophets [of old].” 16 But when Herod heard [of it], he kept saying, “John, whom I beheaded, has risen!”
When Jesus sent out the twelve to spread the news of the Kingdom, King Herod Antipas of Galilee heard about the movement that was spreading from the northwest shore of the Kinneret, and now was being preached in communities around the Galilee region. Villages were being stirred in a way they hadn’t seen since Jesus’ cousin preached repentance with dramatic fervor – and I am certain that Herod was having a few “déjà vu” moments as he heard about the work of Jesus. Crowds were gathering and lives were being changed, and that got his attention and started him wondering about the rising teacher’s identity. His relationship with John probably made that interest even more intense. Bleeding through the narrative of Mark 6:14-16 were the three critical issues:
There seemed to be a sustained fame for this popular teacher: “…King Herod heard of it, for His name had become well known. (Mark 6:14). Second, speculation about the identity of Jesus was becoming problematic to Herod Antipas, because it was “rattling old skeletons” in his royal closet as the “bones of John the Baptizer” haunted his memory. Finally, there seemed to be a rising suspicion about the intent and message of Jesus, especially as it regarded Herod and his immoral actions (Mark 6:14b-15).
We will not take the time to delve into the “back story” Mark explained in Mark 6:17-32, because the lesson learned by the Disciples is what we are following. In truth, Mark explained the reference to John the Baptizer in a “parenthesis of historical notation” (a story to clarify past events about John and his arrest, etc). The account includes the sad story of “corrupt” parent and a child who became a pawn for a parent’s sick purposes. Mark recorded four important historical notes:
First, John had been illegally arrested some time before by Herod. Mark 6:17 For Herod himself had sent and had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, because he had married her. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
Second, the scorn of Herod’s wife was a major part of the motivation. Mark 6:19a Herodias had a grudge against him…”
Third, there was a rift in the couple because of John which was just the “tip of the iceberg” from what we know of the history: Mark 6:19b “…and wanted to put him to death and could not do so; 20 for Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. And when he heard him, he was very perplexed; but he used to enjoy listening to him.
Fourth, the King’s new wife waited for a perfect TIME to make her request – when her husband was feeling particularly macho, and perhaps a bit sensitive about his fear of John. See Mark 6:21: “A strategic day” came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his lords and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. Note the awkward terms “strategic day” for his birthday. The unfortunate terms lead a reader to conclude something more than a party was planned. The term “eukairos” was simply “the right time” – a sign that John’s murder was premeditated by the wife before the celebration, but not the husband.
John’s head was delivered as a part of the promise of the King, not for any true state purpose (Mark 6:22-25). The King was wealthy and powerful, and appeared to believe the lie that fame and power dismissed them from living by the rules all others have. This is a phenomenon we can observe in powerful and famous people even now. The royal couple was offended that John spoke out and called their sin what it was. They used their power to quash criticism, because they wanted to play by their own rules. They could read the Torah, but they didn’t feel subject to it. What is more, they didn’t want others to have the right to use the Biblical rules to in any way criticize what they were doing. Ultimately, they wanted the freedom to change wrong into right, and force those who knew it was wrong to shut up and start accepting it. They were happy to use the “justice system” and prisons to press their point.
Herod Antipas’s standards were made by what pleased him. You can see that in the stealing of his brother Philip’s wife, by the relative protection he afforded John for a time, and the deal he made with his adopted daughter. People who are led by their appetites are people who weaken any resolve to consistently do right.
The news was heartbreaking to Jesus and was sure to discourage and intimidate His followers. The disciples needed to know that some – particularly people of power – wanted to hear of Jesus, but not to yield to Him. Perhaps they wanted to control His message, or even co-opt it to further their own acceptability.
Story Four: Five Thousand Fed
Another story is dropped into this string:
Mark 6:32 They went away in the boat to a secluded place by themselves. [The people] saw them going, and many recognized [them] and ran there together on foot from all the cities, and got there ahead of them. 34 When Jesus went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and He felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things. 35 When it was already quite late, His disciples came to Him and said, “This place is desolate and it is already quite late; 36 send them away so that they may go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” 37 But He answered them, “You give them [something] to eat!” And they said to Him, “Shall we go and spend two hundred denarii on bread and give them [something] to eat?” 38 And He said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go look!” And when they found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 And He commanded them all to sit down by groups on the green grass. 40 They sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 41 And He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up toward heaven, He blessed [the food] and broke the loaves and He kept giving [them] to the disciples to set before them; and He divided up the two fish among them all. 42 They all ate and were satisfied, 43 and they picked up twelve full baskets of the broken pieces, and also of the fish. 44 There were five thousand men who ate the loaves.
The Disciples felt they needed to take “alone time with Jesus” to face the news as well as to share the experience they had just come through, but the crowds met them at the retreat place – and that disheartened them further. Tired from travel and ministry, discouraged over bad news, and promised a day off – the boys were captured in this little story uttering the words: “Send them away!” as if it was FOR the crowds they offered that advice. It wasn’t. They wanted rest. Jesus, on the other hand, gave them a job – meeting the needs of the crowd! The twelve baskets gave the disciples what was LEFT OVER, when they truly desired what CAME FIRST.
The Disciples needed to recognize that though some were rejecting God’s message (like King Herod Antipas) there were still many who were desperate for the touch of God – but they were the people that were often overlooked because they came with needs and at a personal price to the bringers of the message.
Story Five: Jesus Walks on the Water
To drive that message home graphically to the disciples, Jesus sent them into the boat to go home, while He made a plan to pray alone on the hills of the northeast slope of the Sea. Everything changed when the men got in trouble:
Mark 6:45 Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go ahead of [Him] to the other side to Bethsaida, while He Himself was sending the crowd away. 46 After bidding them farewell, He left for the mountain to pray. 47 When it was evening, the boat was in the middle of the sea, and He was alone on the land. 48 Seeing them straining at the oars, for the wind was against them, at about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea; and He intended to pass by them. 49 But when they saw Him walking on the sea, they supposed that it was a ghost, and cried out; 50 for they all saw Him and were terrified. But immediately He spoke with them and said to them, “Take courage; it is I, do not be afraid.” 51 Then He got into the boat with them, and the wind stopped; and they were utterly astonished, 52 for they had not gained any insight from the [incident of] the loaves, but their heart was hardened.
The end of the story tells the key truth instructed in the event. Jesus was going to walk across the Lake on His own and meet them, but they needed help – and that need was given to them to remind them not to look past the needy, and not be arrogant about having God use their hands and feet in the lives of others. They were people – only people – and they could be imperiled in a moment. The Disciples needed to recognize that Jesus came for the needy – and they were needy at their core as well.
Story Six: Healing at Gennesaret
The final account offered a quick snap shot of Jesus back at the grind of ministry:
Mark 6:53 When they had crossed over they came to land at Gennesaret, and moored to the shore. 54 When they got out of the boat, immediately [the people] recognized Him, 55 and ran about that whole country and began to carry here and there on their pallets those who were sick, to the place they heard He was. 56 Wherever He entered villages, or cities, or countryside, they were laying the sick in the market places, and imploring Him that they might just touch the fringe of His cloak; and as many as touched it were being cured.
Why include this last little story? The issue was that the Disciples needed to see the ministry didn’t change – just their perspective on people did. They were learning, as we are, that people matter. The “easy to bypass because they are so needy” types abound in our day – but they matter to God. He wanted those who wanted Him – and He still does.
Disciples who know His love and share His love will find there are people who hunger for His love – even if they have been cast off by others who represented Jesus poorly. Consider this lesson about showing the world the Master:
“Many years ago, an evangelist by the name of Jakov arrived at a village in Serbia. He met an elderly man there named Cimmerman, and Jakov began to talk to him of the love of Christ. Cimmerman abruptly interrupted Jakov and told him that he wished to have nothing to do with Christianity. He reminded Jakov of the dreadful history of the church in his town, where church leaders had plundered, exploited, and killed innocent people. “My own nephew was killed by them,” he said, and angrily rejected any effort on Jakov’s part to talk about Christ. He told Jakov, “They wear those elaborate coats and crosses, but their evil designs and lives I cannot ignore.” Jakov replied, “Cimmerman, can I ask you a question? Suppose I were to steal your coat, put it on, and break into a bank. Suppose further that the police sighted me running in the distance but could not catch up with me. One clue, however, put them onto your track: they recognize your coat. What would you say to them if they came to your house and accused you of breaking into the bank?” “I would deny it,” said Cimmerman. And Jakov countered, “‘Ah, but we saw your coat,’ they would say.” But the analogy annoyed Cimmerman, and he ordered Jakov to leave his home. Even so, Jakov continued to return to the village periodically just to befriend Cimmerman, encourage him, and share the love of Christ with him. Finally one day Cimmerman asked, “How does one become a Christian?” Jakov taught him the simple steps of putting his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and Cimmerman got down on his knees and surrendered his life to Christ. As he rose to his feet, wiping his tears, he embraced Jakov and said, “Thank you for being in my life.” And then he pointed to the heavens and whispered, “You wear His coat very well.” (Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God? Word, 1994).