Astonishment, Fear, Desire, and Trust (Mark 10.32–52)

How do you respond to Jesus at an emotional level? Mark 10.32–52 portrays four responses: astonishment, fear, desire, and trust. Take a closer look at each one.

First, astonishment. “They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished.” They had good reason to be astonished, of course. In their time with Jesus, they had witnessed him perform miracles great and small; seen him exorcise demons singly and in legions; heard him teach with authority, encouragement, and challenging words; and themselves performed miracles and exorcisms in his name. Jesus constantly astonished the disciples with the brilliance of his teaching and the power of his ministry.

But, Mark goes on to say, “those who followed were afraid.” “Those who followed” may refer to the disciples (who were following Jesus) or to a crowd that was following Jesus and his entourage. What did they have to fear? Not Jesus, of course, but perhaps the future that Jesus outlined for his disciples: “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.” This is the third time that Jesus has explained to his disciples the fate that awaits him in Jerusalem. Did Jesus’ followers see the grim determination in his eye as he strode purposefully to a cruel end in Jerusalem? If so, what they saw frightened them.

Third, desire. After hearing about the cross—words that they apparently did not comprehend—James and John asked Jesus for seats of honor in his kingdom. This reflected an unhealthy desire for power over others. While such a desire for power was common in the ancient world, Jesus declared that it was forbidden in his kingdom: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Finally, trust. The order of events in this passage is ironic. Otherwise healthy disciples did not see what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah or for them to be his disciples. They did not see the cross, either Christ’s or their own. But a blind man saw Jesus for who he was. Despite the shushing of the crowd surrounding Jesus, Bartimaeus cried out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” In response, Jesus says, “Go, your faith has healed you.”

How should we respond to Jesus at an emotional level? With astonishing faith and a desire to serve.

Three Hard Words (Mark 10.1–31)

Mark 10.1–31 records three hard words of Jesus about divorce, childlikeness, and wealth.

Regarding divorce, Jesus said, “No!” Some Pharisees tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Alluding to Deuteronomy 24.1–4, the Pharisees answered, “Yes.” But Jesus was unsatisfied with their answer, so he responded: “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law. But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

In Jesus’ day, rabbinic schools interpreted the law’s permission to divorce loosely or tightly. Jesus, citing God’s creative purpose in marriage (Gen. 1.27, 2.24), obviously sided with the stricter reading of the law. Just to make sure that his disciples understood him, he said to them privately: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

Regarding childlikeness, Jesus said, “Yes!” The disciples tried to shoo away parents who were bringing their children to Jesus for a blessing. The disciples’ actions sprang from an exaggerated respect for their own self-importance, as well as a sad lack of respect for the last, the lost, and the least—here ably represented by children. Jesus rebuked them and said: “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

Finally, regarding wealth, Jesus said, “Give!” A rich young man asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus answered, “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The rich man was unwilling to do this, however, and walked away. His action prompted Jesus to say, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Do not divorce. Become like a child. Give away your wealth. These are hard words from Jesus’ lips. But why are they so hard? Because they reveal our hidden, secret desires: lust, pride, and envy. We want sex outside of marriage. We want power over others (like adults), not spiritual powerlessness and dependency (like children). We want more things than we currently have. Worse, we want all these things more than a vital relationship with God. But if we sought God, Jesus tells us, God would give us soft hearts capable of obeying these hard words. “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

Jesus’ words are not the Bible’s only or even final words on divorce, childlikeness, and wealth. But they are important nonetheless, because they challenge who we are and invite us to become who God wants us to be.

Becoming a Servant Like Jesus (Mark 9:33-50)

I have a recurring dream in which I’m the President of the United States. (Don’t laugh! I’d be the fourth George to hold the office.) During my two terms in office, I—in no particular order of importance—establish world peace, secure America’s borders, eliminate domestic poverty, tame the opposition party, and set a standard of presidential eloquence that meets or exceeds Abraham Lincoln’s.

Then I wake up.

The waking world is different than the dreaming world. In the dreaming world, I am powerful. What I set out to do, I accomplish, despite opposition or obstacles. I achieve what the Greeks called kleos—the fame or renown that attaches itself to heroic deeds. When I wake up, however, I am horribly nearsighted, so I put on glasses. I am stiff with arthritis, so I take anti-inflammatory medication. When I go to work, any number of things gets in the way of my accomplishment. I am an associate pastor, one of several on the staff of a large church. [This was first written in 2006.] Where’s the kleos in that? In the waking world, in other words, I am considerably weaker than my dreams.

You are too.

Faced with a choice between dreaming and wakefulness, which of us wouldn’t choose dreaming? Faced with a choice between power and weakness, who wouldn’t choose power? Faced with a choice of being served or serving, which of us wouldn’t choose the former?

But in Mark 9.33–50, Jesus tells us that true greatness lies in serving others: “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Notice that Jesus does not tell us not to seek greatness. His words are not a denial of greatness, but a redefinition of it. The greatest is the servant of all.

To become the greatest servant, we must do three things:

First, we must welcome the last, the lost and the least. “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Second, we must share the work. John complained, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Jesus replied, “whoever is not against us is for us.” The disciples drew the circle of “us” tightly so that they—and they alone?—would be known as Jesus’ disciples. Jesus drew the circle loosely, welcoming the contributions of any and all who act “in my name.”

Third, we must strive for holiness. Jesus strongly warns against causing “these little ones who believe in me to sin.” Powerful people often ride roughshod over the weak. A servant, however, pays attention to others’ needs. To become a servant like Jesus, we must work to purify our hearts and clean up our acts.

Jesus, because he is the servant of all, is the greatest of all. Let us set aside our silly dreams and follow his example wide awake.

Things of God, Things of Men (Mark 8.22–9.1)

Jesus’ relationship with his disciples is all too often a relationship of one step forward, two steps back—both with his first disciples and with us today. They, and we, make progress in the faith only to backslide into our old way of doing things. This back-and-forth dynamic is only display in Mark 8.22–9.1.

“Who do people say I am?” Jesus asks the disciples. We often read the Gospels in order to find practical guidance about how to live our lives, and it offers guidance aplenty. However, the Gospels are not about us, they are about Jesus. Therefore, the question we should be asking when we read the Gospels is not, “What does this say to me?” but “What does this tell me about him?”

The disciples list a variety of common answers to Jesus’ question: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” The crowd’s answers are quite complimentary. John the Baptist was commonly—and rightly—believed by the people to be a prophet. The great Old Testament prophet Elijah was the forerunner to the Messiah (Mal. 4.5–6). Even as an ordinary prophet, Jesus is a spokesman for God.

But Jesus’ presses the disciples: “Who do you say I am?” In that day and this, it is not enough to know what others believe about Jesus. We must make up our minds about him for ourselves. Peter answers, “You are the Christ,” that is, the long-prophesied king of Israel who will put all things right.

The answer is true, of course, but open to misinterpretation. So Jesus takes pains to tell the disciples that his kingdom wears a cross, not a crown. This draws Peter’s rebuke. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus says to Peter. “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

Having in mind the things of men means prioritizing crown over cross, power over sacrifice, judgment over mercy, and an easy-going spirituality over a disciplined following of Christ. It means choosing this world over the salvation of your own soul. Such a mind is satanic.

Having in mind the things of God means seeking a crown through the cross, employing spiritual power through personal sacrifice, letting mercy triumph over judgment, and pursuing the life of Jesus through the hard slog up Calvary. It means prioritizing the state of your soul over the size of your possessions. Having the mind of God is not an easy thing.

No wonder Peter’s rebuke called forth an exorcism. Peter was right to call Jesus “Christ.” But he was wrong—demonically wrong—to leave the cross out of the picture. The only question left for ourselves is whether in following Jesus we also seek to avoid the cross and all that it entails. Do we seek salvation through the cross of Christ, or apart from it? Do we seek spiritual growth through Christian self-denial (cross-bearing), or apart from it? Whether your spiritual journey is going forward or backward depends on how you answer those questions.

The Yeast of the Pharisees (Mark 8.1­–21)

Over the past two years, I have become a huge fan of television crime shows. I watch CSI, Law & Order, Cold Case, and Numbers, of course, all of which are fictional. But I enjoy “true crime” shows the most. My wife and I TiVo every episode of American Justice and Cold Case Files. What fascinates me about these shows is the way detectives patiently gather and sift evidence in order to solve the case and convict a criminal.

Mark 8.1–21 tells two stories. The first is the feeding of the 4000 (vv. 1–13). The second reports on the debriefing meeting Jesus held with his disciples after the event. The Pharisees play a negative role in both stories. In the first, they refuse to let the evidence of Jesus’ power convince them that God has sent him. In the second, Jesus warns the disciples not to become like them. Let’s take a closer look at both stories.

The Gospel of Mark is filled with stories about Jesus’ miraculous powers. In our day, people think of Jesus primarily as a teacher. In Jesus’ day, people thought of him as a teacher, exorcist, and miracle worker. He both taught about and demonstrated the power of the kingdom of God. When the Pharisees witnessed Jesus feed the 4000 with seven loaves of bread, they had already seen or heard about his many other miracles, including the feeding of the 5000, which is recorded in Mark 6.30–44.

The Pharisees’ knowledge of Jesus’ miracles is what makes their request in verse 11 so aggravating. “To test him,” Mark says, “they asked him for a sign from heaven.” Jesus responded: “Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, no sign will be given it.” Of course, Jesus had already given them many “signs from heaven—exorcisms, healings, a resurrection, and two miraculous feedings of multitudes. The Pharisees simply refused to look at those. They wanted yet another. They are like the defense attorneys in my crime shows who, faced with a mountain of evidence against their client, think there is still a reasonable shadow of a doubt.

And that brings us to the disciples. Jesus warned them about “the yeast of the Pharisees.” This is a colorful way of talking about the Pharisees’ skepticism, which will—like yeast—spread throughout the believing community if unchecked by faith. But faith is not unreasonable. Jesus provides evidence that faith in him is well placed. He cites the feeding of the 5000 and of the 4000 as evidence in his favor. “Do you still not understand?” he asks the disciples. In other words, will you believe in me because of what you have seen with your own eyes?

There comes a point in our lives when we must make a decision about Jesus. I know people who put off that decision, also seeking more data, more evidence, more arguments in Christ’s favor. I’m always happy to give such people what they’re asking for—since there is plenty of evidence for Jesus. But at some point, we all have to make up our minds about Jesus. Asking for more evidence may be an indication of legitimate spiritual seeking. But it also may be an indicator of illegitimate, obstinate, unreasonable doubt.

He Has Done Everything Well (Mark 7.24–37)

Mark 7.24–37 tells two stories.

In the first story, a Greek woman from Syrian Phoenicia (modern-day Lebanon) asks Jesus to exorcise a demon from her daughter. Easy enough, of course! Jesus has already exorcised numerous demons as well as given his disciples the power to do so (Mark 1.21–28, 39; 3.11–12, 15, 20–30; 5.1–20; 6.7, 13). And yet, Jesus responds to the woman with what seems like an ethnic insult: “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” As the parallel story in Matthew 15.21–28 makes clear, “children” refers to Jews and “dogs” to Gentiles. Jesus seems to be saying that he will not help the woman because she doesn’t deserve the blessing reserved for Jews.

The woman is persistent, however. She counters Jesus’ apparent insult with a strong riposte: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Incidentally, this woman is the only person in Mark’s Gospel to refer to Jesus as “Lord.” She demonstrates a theological acuity that others lack.) “For such a reply,” Jesus says, “you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” And indeed, it had.

What do we learn about Jesus from this story? That Jesus is an ethnic chauvinist? No! As Matthew makes clear, Jesus is a mission-driven individual: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matt. 15.24). Jesus’ mission is to bring the gospel to God’s chosen people, the Jews, his countrymen and fellow religionists. And yet, Jesus everywhere permits mission creep. All who come to him with genuine faith receive what they ask for. In the immediately preceding story, “Jesus declared all foods ‘clean’” (Mark 7.19). In Jesus’ day, food divided Jews and Gentiles. By declaring all foods clean, Jesus crosses the dividing line declares all people groups clean as well.

In the second story, Jesus heals a deaf mute. Then he commands the man to remain mute and not share his testimony with others. “But the more [Jesus] did so, the more they kept talking about it.” The people hear and see Jesus’ handiwork, and they respond by saying, “He has done everything well.” Excellence is a hallmark of Jesus’ life, teaching, healing ministry, death, and finally resurrection.

What do these two stories teach us about how we ought to respond to Jesus? First, to approach him with bold prayers. The Syro-Phoenician woman boldly crosses a language barrier (Greek), an ethnic barrier (Jew-Gentile), and a sex barrier (male-female) in order to ask Jesus a favor. And he grants her request. Are we boldly forthright in our prayers? Do they cost us anything? Second, these stories teach us to share our faith boldly. In the Gospels, people violate Jesus’ commandment of silence with impunity. It’s almost as if Jesus wishes us to disobey him in this regard. But all too often, we act like mutes when we should be shouting the wonderful things Jesus has done for us.

Clean Hands, Unclean Hearts (Mark 7.1–23)

Mark 7.1–23 tells the story of Jesus’ interaction with a group of inquisitive Pharisees and teachers of the law. Through his response to their question, we learn about the danger of externally defined righteousness as well as the necessity of inward moral transformation. Let’s take a closer look at the story!

Notice the context: A committee of Pharisees and teachers of the law from Jerusalem go down to Galilee to investigate Jesus’ orthodoxy. When they see Jesus’ disciples eating food without first washing their hands, they ask Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?” For the Pharisees and teachers of the law, hand washing is a religious ritual, not just a hygienic practice. (In our day, it is the reverse: a hygienic practice, not a religious ritual.) If Jesus’ disciples do not observe the hand-washing ritual, then the Pharisees and teachers can conclude that Jesus’ teaching is heterodox and spiritually suspect.

Now, the Mosaic law commands the priests to wash their hands before they minister in the temple (Ex. 30.17–21). It also commands men and women to bathe—and wash their hands—if they experience a bodily discharge (Lev. 15.4–30). But it nowhere commands the Israelites to wash their hands before eating.

Noticing the discrepancy between “the commands of God” and “the traditions of men,” Jesus criticizes the Pharisees and teachers of the law for three reasons.

First, their priorities are misplaced. Quoting Isaiah 29.13, Jesus points out to his hearers that the Pharisees and teachers of the law let go of “the commands of God” even while they hold on to “the traditions of men.” They claim that their hand washing honors God, but in reality, it dishonors God by elevating human interpretations of Scripture to the level of Scripture itself.

Second, they are hypocrites. They expect others to obey human traditions while they themselves disobey divine laws. This is the point of Jesus’ example about the practice of corban. The Pharisees and teachers of the law dedicate money to the temple that should go toward the care of their elderly parents. For Jesus, the moral requirements of the law are paramount. But the Pharisees and teachers of the law find ways to evade them.

Third, they have an external, rather than internal, definition of “cleanness.” The Pharisees and teachers of the law value clean hands. But Jesus values clean hearts. Indeed, according to Isaiah 29.13, God himself wants clean hearts above all else. Or rather, he wants our hearts to be near to him. The Pharisees believe that they are basically good inside and so strive to avoid contamination by outside influences. But Jesus believes that our heart, not our environment, is what contaminates us. “‘What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’”

It is easy enough to beat up on the Pharisees. But how often is our religion like theirs? Too often, in my opinion. So, let us repent, prioritize God’s word, obey his commandments, and seek divine help to change from the inside out!

Smallness of Faith, Hardness of Heart (Mark 6.30–56)

Mark 6.30–56 tells the stories of two miracles. In the first (vv. 30–44), Jesus feeds a large crowd with fives loaves and two fish. In the second (vv. 45–56), he walks on water. Both stories tell us something important about Jesus, as well as something troubling about ourselves.

The first story tells us that Jesus is the Great Shepherd who cares about and provides for his sheep, both spiritually and physically. It begins with Jesus inviting his apostles, exhausted from their first extended evangelistic campaign, to take a few days off. “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” This invitation is a profound comment on Jesus’ leadership style. He expects and empowers us to do great things, but he also realizes the limits of our abilities and encourages us to create moments for self-care.

The apostles’ rest did not last long, however, for the crowds discovered their quiet place. We have seen Jesus’ heart for his apostles, now we see his heart for the masses: “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.” This is a profound comment about Jesus’ priorities as a leader. He prioritizes the crowd’s spiritual needs over their physical needs. Why? Because, as he told the devil, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4.4).

By the same token, however, he does not neglect the crowd’s physical needs. When the disciples ask him to send the crowd away so that they can purchase food in the surrounding villages, Jesus says to them: “You give them something to eat.” All they can rustle up are fives loaves and two fish, hardly enough food for a multitude. But when Jesus blesses and distributes the food, the disciples discover, to their amazement, that there is more than enough for all. Smallness of faith had hampered the ability of the apostles to minister to the crowd.

After feeding the crowd, Jesus sends the apostles ahead of him to Bethsaida, which requires that they set sail on the Sea of Galilee. A storm arises, and Jesus—who is on a mountain overlooking the lake—sees “the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them.” So, he walks across the lake to them. When they see him coming toward them, they think he is a ghost and become frightened. So Jesus responds, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbs into the boat, and the wind dies down. Mark offers this commentary on the apostles’ response: “They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.”

Jesus is a powerful person. That is the important lesson we learn from these stories. The troubling lesson is that we all too often have small faith and hard hearts. So, let us pray and strive for a large-minded, soft-hearted faith!

A Prophet Without Honor (Mark 6.1–29)

In a perfect world, people get exactly what they deserve. Good comes to those who do good, but bad to those who do bad. A perfect world, in other words, is characterized by justice, which Aristotle defined as treating equals equally and unequals unequally.

Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world. In our world, bad things happen to good people, while bad people enjoy good things. Injustice is all too often the rule in our world, not the exception.

According to Mark 6.1–29, Jesus and his colleagues also experienced injustice. Although good people—in Jesus’ case, a perfect person—they experienced bad things. Jesus was a “prophet without honor” in his hometown (vv. 1–6a). He trained his disciples to “shake the dust off your feet” of villages who rejected the good news (vv. 6b–13). And John the Baptist—last of the Old Testament prophets—was beheaded because Herod made a rash vow to a seductive dancer (vv. 14–29).

How should we live in an unjust world?

First, we should say what we must. When Jesus taught in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth, the people were amazed, as Jesus’ audiences typically were after hearing him speak. But their amazement was cynical, not joyful. “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” Hegel once said that no man was a hero to his own valet. Jesus surely wasn’t a hero to his fellow villagers. Their familiarity with him—or perhaps their envy of him?—had only bred contempt. But Jesus spoke anyway. So did the disciples, who experienced a measure of success in their evangelistic efforts. And so did John the Baptist, whose brave criticism of Herod’s sexual immorality ultimately cost him his life. In an unjust world, those who are just by faith must speak the truth, no matter what the cost.

Second, we should do what we can. Verses 5 and 13 offer a startling contrast between Jesus and his disciples. Of Jesus we read: “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.” But of the disciples we read: “They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.” How is it that Jesus healed so few when the disciples healed so many? Verse 6 says, “And [Jesus] was amazed at [his villagers’] lack of faith.” With both Jesus and the disciples, there was no shortage of power to heal, and they were all willing to heal. The shortage lay in the faith of the Nazarene villagers. Their unbelief constrained Jesus’ power. As followers of Christ, we should do whatever good we can whenever we can, but we should also realize that some people don’t want us to do good to them.

Finally, we should bear what we must. Jesus bore the sadness of the villagers’ failure of faith. The disciples bore the joy of miraculous success. John suffered persecution and martyrdom. When we say what we must and do what we can, we must be prepared for whatever result comes our way, either good or bad. That is the cost of discipleship for all who follow Jesus.

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: