March 24, 2016
If you could become any one of these four people, which would you choose?
- (a) The richest, most successful businessman in the world;
- (b) The most popular, most attractive movie star in the world;
- (c) The president of the United States;
- (d) An aids orphan in a slum.
Which do you choose?
Some of us might have a hard time choosing between a, b, and c; but would anyone pick d?
Let me change the question: You now have the same four choices, except: if you choose a, b, or c, you do not know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. If you’re the aids orphan, you do.
Which do you choose now?
Is the choice hard?
Do you see what I’m asking? How much is Jesus worth? Is knowing him worth more than all of Bill Gates’ fortune? Is knowing Him worth more than all the fame or power of a movie star or a president?
This is the central theme of Mark 14:1-25: How much do we value Jesus? The passage is like a play: there are four main characters or groups of characters, all revolving around Jesus, all assessing Jesus’ worth. The characters are:
- The chief priests and their associates
- An unnamed woman
- The other disciples
The passage divides itself into five scenes. We’ll briefly clarify or elaborate on a few points in each scene, then compare and contrast some of these characters, drawing out lessons for ourselves.
Scene 1: Mark 14:1-2. The Chief Priests and Associates
At this time, Passover was the most widely-attended Jewish festival. At least a few hundred thousand Jews came from afar to celebrate. The chief priests want to arrest Jesus, but since many of these attendees thought highly of Jesus, they want to move on the sly, stealthily, and to take Him into custody after the feast.
Scene 2: Mark 14:3-9, Jesus, the Disciples, and a Woman
Picture the scene: Jesus and his disciples, possibly with other guests are eating at the home of Simon the Leper — presumably a former leper whom Jesus had healed. This house is in Bethany, a couple of miles outside Jerusalem, where Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, live. As is the custom in this time and place, they are not sitting down to eat but reclining, lying with their feet away from the table, resting on their left arms, using their right hands to eat. The table is short, perhaps a foot high.
During the meal a woman enters the room carrying an incredibly expensive jar of perfume. She not only opens the jar, but breaks it, filling the room with its aroma. Then, rather than putting a small amount on Jesus, she pours the entire jar on him.
John tells us the identity of the woman: Mary, the sister of Lazarus. He also tells us that she does not stop at his head, but pours the perfume on his feet, and wipes those feet with her hair.
The plant that produces nard was grown only in the Himalayas, and so the perfume is very expensive. If the stated value of three hundred denarii is accurate, this would be about $15,000 in the US today. Nard was literally a gift for a king.
Some rebuke Mary for this “waste,” saying the profits from its sale could have been given to the poor. But Jesus accepts this offering, saying it prepares His body for burial.
Scene 3: Mark 14:10-11, Judas and the Chief Priests
Judas goes to the chief priests, and offers to betray Jesus. They are delighted. Judas can help them find Jesus in a private place, so they can arrest Him where there are no crowds to start a riot.
Matthew tells us the amount of money they offered him: 30 pieces of silver, likely worth about $5000 for us. The chief priests pay Judas about one-third of the value of the nard Mary poured out on Jesus.
Scene 4: Mark 14:12-16, Jesus and the Disciples, Preparing for the Last Supper
With all the crowds gathered in Jerusalem for Passover, finding a place to eat the celebratory meal is a real problem. Although they have been in Jerusalem almost a week, the disciples have made no arrangements for a room.
Jesus, however, had graciously prepared details ahead of time. Presumably during His last visit to Jerusalem, Jesus made arrangements for a room to be available for this special meal. He then works miraculously, arranging that when the designated disciples arrive in the city they will see a man carrying a jar of water (an unusual event in these times). They do so, and prepare for the meal.
Scene 5: Mark 14:17-25, Jesus and His Disciples: The Last Supper
Jesus and the disciples wait until they can move under the cover of darkness to the upper room. Here, while they are eating, Jesus breaks the news that one of the twelve disciples will betray Him. Twice before — in Mark 9:31 and 10:33 — Jesus has said that He will be betrayed. But the disciples had not understood, and clearly did not think that one of the twelve would be the betraying agent. They cannot believe this – clearly the eleven have no suspicions of Judas – and each one asks Jesus if he is the betrayer.
In this culture, to be betrayed by one “who is eating with me,” who “dips with me in the bowl” was considered particularly treacherous. To eat with someone implied friendship, trust, and an obligation to help and protect. So by speaking of their eating together, and saying that the betrayer is “one of the twelve,” Jesus is emphasizing the enormity of the evil of what is happening.
Jesus then institutes the Lord’s Supper, saying the bread is His body, and the cup is the blood of the covenant.
The Characters: Jesus
Now let’s turn our attention to the characters. We will look first at Jesus, and then draw some comparisons and contrasts with the others.
Mark clearly presents Jesus as in control of the situation. Jesus is not surprised by anything that happens. The chief priests are trying to move secretly, on the sly, but Jesus knows their plans and arranges matters so that His arrest does not take place until He has finished His other work. Judas thinks he is fooling the others – and he succeeds in fooling his fellow disciples. But Jesus knows of the betrayal, and lets Judas know that He knows. Jesus is well-prepared for this momentous last meal, making arrangements ahead of time.
But most importantly, Jesus presents Himself as precious through the institution of the Lord’s Supper. There are two aspects his preciousness to unpack here. First:
(1) The Lord’s Supper signifies that Jesus pays the penalty for our sins
When offering the cup, Jesus says “this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many.” Jesus here identifies himself Old Testament sacrifices, whose blood, we are told in Leviticus 17:11, was poured out on the altar “to make atonement for your souls.” Paul later makes an explicit parallel between Jesus and the Passover lamb, stating “Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7).
What does this mean? As the author of the book of Hebrews writes, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” God is a just God; He is the moral authority in the universe. He makes sure that every wrong is paid for, exactly as it deserves. And each of us sins in many ways. Most fundamentally, each of us fails to praise God as we He deserves; instead, we dishonor Him by our actions, our inaction, our thoughts, and our words. But Jesus, the perfect, unblemished lamb, offers His life to pay the penalty for all our sins, enabling us to enter God’s presence spotless and pure. This is what we act out and celebrate when we partake of the Lord’s Supper. This is how precious Jesus is.
But there’s even more:
(2) The Lord’s Supper signifies that Jesus lives within you
Given that Jesus pays the penalty for all our sins, we should respond by living out lives that honor and glorify Him. But how can we do that, since we are so prone to selfishness, self-centeredness, and other forms of evil?
Jesus says the cup is His “blood of the covenant.” Jeremiah prophesied that, in the new covenant, God would put His law within His people, on their heart (Jeremiah 31:33). So God’s law will not be something external, rules that His people will have to live up to. No. His law will be on their heart, within them, and they will have true intimacy with Him.
So Jesus gives us this wonderful picture: We are to eat His flesh, and drink His blood; we are to have His life within us, always. Remember, God had commanded the Israelites not to drink any blood of any kind, and to drain all the blood from an animal prior to cooking its meat. For the life is in the blood, and that serves to make atonement for their souls (Leviticus 17:11). So when Jesus tells us to drink His blood, He tells us to have His life within us. Christ in us, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). So by the power of the living Christ within us, we not only can stand before God with our sins paid for; we also are transformed eventually into His likeness, as He lives out His life in us.
So we are to drink up Jesus’ life, we are to consume Him, for, as Jesus says in John 6:55, “My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.” This is the lesson for us: Feed on Him, devour Him, get all our sustenance from Him, value Him above all else, desire Him more than anything, glorify Him with our money, our time, all that we are. Jesus is the most precious of all.
Reactions to Jesus by the Other Characters
How do the other characters react to this most precious One? The woman, Mary, is central here. All others are in contrast to her.
Mary vs the Chief Priests
The chief priests pay money to destroy Jesus; Mary gives much more money to anoint Jesus for burial.
Mary vs the Disciples
The disciples have had much more instruction from Jesus than Mary ever had. Jesus had even prophesied to them about His death at least three times. Nevertheless, they act completely unprepared for His death. They do not act as if they expect anything to happen; they don’t even make any preparations for their last Passover meal together.
On the other hand, Mary surely does not understand all that is happening, but knows that she will not have Jesus with her much longer. Despite not having heard Jesus’ prophecies about His death, she knows that He will die, and knows that Jesus is more precious than anything else imaginable. So she gives up what is most valuable to her – this jar of nard, perhaps a family heirloom – to prepare His body for burial. She demeans herself even to the point of rubbing His feet with her hair, knowing that Jesus is the most precious of all.
Mary vs Judas
Judas is one of these disciples, one of the intimate circle that Jesus has loved and taught. Judas has traveled with Jesus for three years, and has heard those prophecies about His death. Judas has even been empowered by Jesus to perform miracles when He sent the disciples out two by two. But now, Judas sells the most precious person in the world. For $5000, Judas gave up the source of all true life.
Mary has had much less contact with Jesus, but values Him above all else. She gives up three times what Judas received for betraying Him, in order to honor Him and acknowledge Him as precious.
But there’s another contrast between Judas and Mary. In Mark 14:21, Jesus says, “Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!” This verse proclaims both God’s sovereignty and man’s accountability. God is sovereign; He foretold Judas’ betrayal 1000 years previously. And He arranged events so that all would take place according to His good, perfect, and wise plan. God is in control.
Yet Judas chooses to betray Jesus, and is responsible for that choice. For what he does, the name “Judas” becomes the name of a traitor.
What is the contrast with Mary? She too was part of God’s plan, acting out the preciousness of Jesus for all the world to see. She too made a choice. Her name too will live for all time: “Wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 14:9).
So why are these scenes together? Why does Mark put the story of Mary’s anointing of Jesus right next to the story of the Last Supper?
Mary lives out the picture of the Lord’s Supper. Mary is feeding on Jesus, showing that she values Him above all else – and this is what Jesus pictures for us in the Lord’s Supper.
Are you sold out to God? Or are you just sold out? Mary was sold out to God. Judas was sold out. Just as Esau sold his inheritance for lentil stew, Judas sold his soul for $5000.
That seems incredible to us — but what’s your price? Do you have a price?
- Physical punishment for yourself?
- Physical punishment for your family?
While many of our brothers and sisters around the world and in the history of the church have to ask that question, for us the prospect of physical punishment or death for proclaiming the preciousness of Jesus seems abstract, unreal. So ask yourself this question: Is your price a steady job and a nice income and a nice house and a nice car and college for the kids?
Good things, all: But are you devoting yourself to these goals more than you are devoting yourself to following Jesus? Is the pursuit of these things, is your plan to achieve all these things, standing in the way of your making a radical, life-changing commitment to God? Standing in the way of your expressing you wholehearted devotion to Jesus, like Mary?
Instead, are you more like Simon’s dinner guests: calculating, “Oh, that’s too much to give to Jesus! We’ll give him our worship on Sunday, and a tenth of our income (maybe); that should be enough. But, Hey! What I do with the rest of my money and the rest of my time, that’s up to me.”
Are you sold out to Jesus and the gospel? Or are you only playing at church?
You don’t owe Jesus only a tenth of your income. You don’t owe him only your worship on Sunday. You owe him everything! You owe Him your entire life!
But this is not some onerous debt you have to repay, which hurts each time you make a payment! For when you yield to him, when you give up these pseudo-successes and pseudo-pleasures the world offers, when instead you feed on Him, and drink Him up – you find the real love, joy, and peace the world so much longs for. You get to know the most precious, the most beautiful, the most loving person in the world. And as you get to know Him, and as you see Him and learn more and more of Him, as you drink Him up, you become like Him.
So do that! Drink him up! Feed on him!
Taste and see the goodness of the Lord – and enter in to the joy of His presence.
So, yes, I would rather be a poor aids orphan in a slum – and know Jesus – than the richest man in the world, and not know Him. I know that that’s the right choice. I don’t always act consistently with that knowledge, but I know it’s right.
What about you? Is Jesus more precious to you than anything in this world?
[This devotion is a shortened and edited version of a sermon preached July 30, 2000. You can read the entire sermon here.]
March 17, 2016
Tuesday we put down our 19-year-old cat, Madison.
We got Madison from a shelter when he was a few weeks old. He had big eyes, a cute face, and a playful spirit. Our youngest son, Joel, was two. Over the next few years, Joel regularly would throw Madison over his shoulder and carry him around the house. Madison peered at us, wide-eyed, asking to be saved from this terror of a boy – but not scratching, ever.
At age 3, traumatized and in shock after an attack by a large canine, Madison stayed downstairs in our Massachusetts basement for weeks, recovering. After that, I don’t think he was ever sick for a day.
Until Monday. He was sluggish. He wailed. He vomited – first his food, then clear liquid.
Tuesday, he was in obvious distress. The vet thought he knew what was wrong; he could do a series of procedures for an estimated $1000 that he thought would solve the problem. The prognosis was good, but not definite. The problem might reoccur. Madison might only live a few more months. Or he might live several more years. Beth and I spoke on the phone; we put him down. I stroked Madison’s cheek while the vet injected him with barbiturates.
Now, as encounters with death go, this was quite minor. A cat – even a beloved pet – is a cat. In what follows, I’m not drawing any degree of equivalence between a cat’s death and a person’s death. Nevertheless, Madison’s demise prompted me to reflect more widely on the way our culture – and I myself – speak of and respond to death. So here are some thoughts:
I have little firsthand experience with death. I have never been in the presence of a person when he or she died. A few hours before death, and minutes afterward, yes. But never at the point itself.
I suspect my lack of experience is common for Americans. We live sanitized lives. We know death is certain, but, for many, it is hidden, shrouded, filed away from consciousness – something we encounter in theaters and in television and in books, but not in our day-to-day lives. In this way we fail to come to terms with our own mortality: Unless Jesus returns in the next few decades, I will die. Like Madison, my breathing will cease, my heart will stop. I will die.
Our sanitized lives extend to the euphemisms we use when referring to death – even of our pets. Did you notice the euphemism I used above? “We put him down.” Well. I “put Madison down” when he was “making biscuits” on my thighs, sticking his claws into me. What happened Tuesday was rather more significant than that. And note the use of the first person plural, deflecting responsibility from myself. I could have said straightforwardly, “I told the vet to kill my cat.” But we almost never use such language. We soften the blow.
Scripture usually is quite straightforward about death. “On the day you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Eight times in Genesis 5, we read, “And he died.” Job’s children all die in a building collapse (Job 1:18-19). The patriarchs all die. David dies. Solomon dies. Most of all, Jesus dies.
Thus, “Because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man” (Romans 5:17). Yet here in the US for so much of the time we can live our lives pretending that death only reigns theoretically, only reigns in films and television and literature. Even the death of a cat can challenge that pretension.
We use euphemisms and fail to speak frankly about death in order to help those encountering death, attempting to be kind and caring. Yet is it really kind and caring to act as if death is not ever-present, not threatening?
For when we downplay death, we inevitably downplay the resurrection.
For the Bible’s answer to the severity of death, to the horror of death, is not to soften the language and to help people to maintain an illusion of safety and immortality in this earthly existence. The Bible’s answer to the threat of death is to look it in the eye, to admit its horrors – and then to show us God’s plan of redemption, through Jesus’ death and resurrection!
For Jesus was dead, really dead. It was painful. It was horrible. His lungs filled with fluid. His breathing stopped. His heart stopped. He was dead.
And yet: God raised Him from the dead.
Imagine my reaction had I gone out early this morning to Madison’s little grave in our backyard, and found the dirt moved away, the hole empty – and imagine I then felt Madison rubbing against my leg! “He’s alive! He’s here! In the flesh! How did that happen? How can this possibly be? Yet here he is – furry and warm and purring and cuddly!”
How incomparably greater the joy and amazement of the disciples upon seeing the risen Jesus!
My friends, God promises to “swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25:8). Jesus has
“broken the power of death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10 NET). If we downplay the power of death, if we downplay death as “the last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26), we downplay the power of the resurrection and the accomplishment of Jesus.
God did not create us for death. For His people, for those united to His Son, for those who believe in His Name, who walk according to the Spirit, He promises: “The time will come when death will be no more. The old order will pass away. I will wipe every tear from your eyes. Everlasting joy shall be upon your heads” (Revelation 21:4, Isaiah 35:10).
Death entered the world because of sin. It is the last enemy.
But we, in Christ, can look death in the eye. We can acknowledge its power.
And we can know that He who mightily raised Jesus from the dead will give life to our mortal bodies, so that we too might have eternal life (Romans 8:11). Praise God for the Gospel.
March 3, 2016
In Mark 3, Jesus has become the center of public attention. Thousands are coming to Him, following Him wherever He goes, even to the point that He could find no opportunity to eat (Mark 3:31). Mary and Jesus’ brothers hear of this, and are concerned: Is Jesus out of His mind? How can He not even be taking care of Himself? (Mark 3:32). They go to Him in order to intervene.
When they arrive, they send a message to Jesus while He is teaching the crowd. When word reaches Him, the crowd expects Him to go see His family. But He responds:
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35)
That is: “Those who are closest to Me are not My blood relatives. Those who are closest to Me are those who follow God, those who obey Him with joy, trusting the heavenly Father to guide them in His good and perfect ways. Such people are my intimate family.”
Yet in our natural state we rebel against the good and loving commands of our God. As Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” So we rightly sing, “Prone to wander – Lord I feel it! – prone to leave the God I love.” Thus God put reminders of His commands into the everyday life of the people of Israel. For example: After the people rebel at the edge of the Promised Land, refusing to enter in for fear of giants (Numbers 14), God tells them to wear tassels on each corner of their garments so that they will remember His commandments “to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after” (Numbers 15:39). And why is obedience important? Because He is their God; He brought them out of Egypt to be their God; they are to be holy, set apart for their God (Numbers 15:40-41).
Just so with us today. God brings us out of rebellion, out of slavery to sin, out of our own Egypts. He rescues us – not so that we, freed from slavery to sin, can be free to follow after our own heart and our own eyes. No. To follow after our own heart is to be enslaved once again to sin. Our desperately sick and deceitful heart makes us believe we are freely pursuing our own good, but that way that seems right to us leads only to death and destruction (Proverbs 14:12).
God plans something much better for those whom He rescues from slavery. He brings us to Himself. He adopts us into His family. He calls us to be set apart for Him. And He tells us what that means in this world by giving us commandments for our good (Deuteronomy 10:13).
So obedience is characteristic of those in God’s family. Loved by Him, chosen by Him, empowered by Him to obey, we respond with loving, joyful obedience to His commands that are for our good.
Yet what happens when we fail? What happens when we disobey? What happens when that desperately sick, deceitful heart leads us again in a wrong direction? If we don’t obey God’s commands, are we kicked out of the family?
Jesus Himself provides the solution. As in good human families, God the Father never leaves or forsakes the children who are His. As the Apostle John writes, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin” (1 John 2:1). That is, we’re part of the family. We are to be obedient to our loving Father. To sin is to deny Who He is and what He has done for us. “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:1-2). In His family, the penalty for sin is paid. Jesus took the just punishment on Himself for the sins of those in the family. Yet this is not an excuse to sin: “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3).
So Jesus invites us – He invites you! – to be part of the joyful, obedient family of God. To do this, we must recognize our sinful, deceitful hearts, and acknowledge that apart from God’s loving guidance we will go astray, we will rebel, we will wander, to our own harm. But in the family of God, we are loved; we are cherished; we are forgiven by the blood of Christ. So, set apart for Him, we live lives worthy of our calling, knowing that through us(!) “all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD” (Numbers 14:21).