An Interruption to an Interruption (Mark 5:21-43)


Mark 5.21–43 tells the interconnected stories of two miracles: (1) the healing of a woman with a twelve-year-long hemorrhage and (2) the resurrection of Jairus’ little daughter.

What do these miracles teach us about Jesus?

First, and very obviously, they teach us that Jesus has the power to heal. Jesus has power over sickness and death, as the stories of the woman and the young girl make clear. Furthermore, Jesus has power over the natural and supernatural realms, as seen by his calming of the storm (Mark 4.35–41) and exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac (5.1–20).

Second, Jesus’ power to heal is holistic. Pay close attention to the story of the woman with the twelve-year-long hemorrhage. According to Mark, in addition to her illness, she “had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse.” Her problem had physical, emotional, and financial dimensions. It also had spiritual and social dimensions, however. What Mark does not state explicitly, but what the careful reader knows, is that this woman was ritually “unclean” according to the Law, and she rendered unclean anyone she touched (Lev. 15.25–33). How long had she felt ashamed of her condition? How long had she been unable to experience human touch? We do not know. What we do know is that when Jesus healed her physical illness, he also healed her emotions, ended the medical draining of her finances, restored her to spiritual “cleanness,” and reconnected her to normal human society. “Go in peace,” he said, “and be freed from your suffering.”

Third, Jesus’ power to heal reverses the flow of contamination. When someone is sick, we fear catching the disease. According to the Law of Moses, when someone is ritually unclean, anyone who touches that person becomes unclean as well. In the two stories we’re considering today, both the woman with the twelve-year-long hemorrhage and the dead girl were ritually unclean (Lev. 15.25–33; Num. 19.11, 14). When the woman pushed her way through the crowd to touch Jesus, she rendered unclean everyone she touched, but not Jesus. Nor did Jesus become unclean when he took Jairus’ little daughter “by the hand.” Why? Because Jesus decontaminates whatever he touches, physically and spiritually. I think Jesus’ example of physically touching people is a marvelous model for us to follow. When people are sick—of AIDS, for example—we should not feel afraid to touch them, for this is what Jesus would do if he was in our place.

Finally, Jesus makes his power to heal available at all times. My dad likes to say that Mark 5.21–43 is the story of an interruption of an interruption. Jesus was teaching the crowd when Jairus interrupted him with news of his little daughter’s parlous condition. Jesus was on his way to Jairus’ house when the hemorrhaging woman interrupted his journey and touched him. Time management techniques have taught us that every activity needs to find its appointed day and hour. Jesus never made appointments, or rather, he never let his appointments interrupt an opportunity to help people. Neither should we.

The first step in healing is simply being available to others so that God can use you as his agent of bring wholeness to others.

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Salvation as the Ultimate Sanity (Mark 5:1-20)


American culture has a longstanding interest in the occult, stretching from the Salem Witch Trials in the late seventeenth century to the remake of The Amityville Horror today. A crucial difference between then and now is that the Puritans feared witches and demons because they thought they were real. We, on the other hand derive entertainment from them because precisely we think they don’t really exist. (There’s just nothing like a good scare now and then!) I’m not sure whether being entertained by depictions of evil is an improvement over prosecuting witches, but I am sure that American interest in the occult is here to stay.

And that brings us to Mark 5.1–20, the best-known story of demon possession in the Gospels. In the story, Jesus encountered a demon-possessed man in the region of the Gerasenes. “This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him any more, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and food, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.”

Mark is quite clear about the cause of the man’s bizarre behavior: An “evil spirit” possessed him. More specifically, he was infested by multiple demons. When Jesus asked the man his name, the demons replied: “My name is Legion, for we are many.” And when Jesus exorcized Legion, Mark tells us that “evil spirits” (plural) left the man. Modern commentators generally assume that Mark is using pre-scientific categories of demon possession to describe a man who suffered from bipolar disorder and dissociative identity disorder. In other words, the man was a manic-depressive with multiple personalities.

Personally, I think both Mark and Jesus before him knew how to distinguish disorders with natural causes from disorders with supernatural causes. So, I think Mark’s diagnosis is more accurate than that of modern commentators. And anyway, there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamed by philosophers, as Hamlet reminded Horatio. My worldview is not characterized by a cramped and narrow naturalism, and I don’t think yours should be other. Interestingly, however, whatever the diagnosis of the man, Jesus exhibited an incredible power to heal. Either he exorcized the man or immediately cured him of his bipolar and dissociative identity disorders without medication or extensive time on Freud’s proverbial couch. Whatever we might say about the man, we must agree with his appraisal of Jesus, that he is “Son of the Most High God.”

A story that began with a wild, uncontrollable, inconsolable man ends with that same man “dressed and in his right mind.” This is a marvelous portrait of salvation as the ultimate sanity. Whether the causes of our disorders are supernatural or natural, Jesus wants to bring wholeness and wellness to our lives. And since he is the Son of God, he can.

True Adults in Faith (Mark 4:21-41)


In a sermon a few years ago, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger—now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI—offered some insights about what it means to be “a true adult in the faith.” Reflecting on Ephesians 4.13–14, he said: “Being an ‘adult’ means having a faith which does not follow the waves of today’s fashions or the latest novelties. A faith which is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ is adult and mature.” Today’s Scripture reading is Mark 4.21–41. In it, Jesus shows us what it means to practice a mature, adult faith in him.

First, a mature Christian faith is characterized by openness. “For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.” What should Christians be open about? About their faith, which is portrayed as a lamp lighting the way to salvation. “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand?” Adult Christians do not hesitate to live their faith before others and share their faith with others. Why? Because they have nothing to hide.

Second, a mature Christian faith is characterized by mercy. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more.” In other words, if you treat others judgmentally, you will be judged. If you treat others mercifully, you will receive mercy. “Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.” An adult Christian passes along to others the grace he has received from God.

Third, a mature Christian faith is oriented toward fruitfulness. Jesus tells two parables about the kingdom of God. The first one compares the kingdom to a farmer who scatters seed (vv. 26–29). “Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows…. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” In other words, it is not enough that you make a good start in the faith. Seedliness is insufficient. God wants you to come to fruition, ready for the divine harvest of the resurrection.

Fourth, a mature Christian faith has influence. The second parable of the kingdom Jesus tells concerns “the mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.” Does your Christianity provide help to others in need? Does it comfort mourners? Does it shelter victims?

Fifth, a mature Christian faith takes Christ at his word. In verses 35–41, Jesus and the disciples get into a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee. “Let us go over to the other side,” Jesus said. Midway through the journey, a storm arose that threatened to capsize the boat and drown them all. The disciples were anxious, but “Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion.” The disciples yelled at him: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown.” Jesus woke up, calmed the storm, and questioned his disciples: “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” When Jesus says, “Let us go over to the other side,” you will make it to the other side, no matter what happens along the way. A mature faith believes in Christ through troubled times.

What Kind of Dirty Are You? (Mark 4:1-20)


When I was growing up, my best friend was Clyde. Clyde had a vivid imagination. Whenever I went to his house to play, he dreamed up some scenario for us to act out. “Cops and Robbers” was too tame for him. Instead, we’d play “FBI Special Agents and Mafia Dons.” Invariably, he’d introduce each scenario with the word pertrank. I looked it up in a dictionary. It didn’t exist, except in Clyde’s mind. It meant something like pretend or dream up or imagine, but to an extreme degree.

The value of pertranking was that for a few brief hours of play, we ceased to be little boys at play and became what we were pretending to be. We saw things differently and acted on the basis of that new vision. Jesus taught by means of pertranking. He offered a new vision of reality that led to a different way of behaving. But the Gospels use a real word to describe his teaching methodology: parable. According to Matthew 13.34, “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.”

Mark 4.1–20 records one of those parables. It’s about a farmer, seed, and dirt. “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times.” Pretty mundane stuff, you might think, but Jesus thought it was spiritually significant: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

What are we supposed to hear? What new vision does Jesus’ pertranking help us see? A new vision of ourselves. The dirt isn’t dirt; it’s us. It’s the state of our hearts. Jesus’ parable forces us to ask what kind of dirt we are, that is, whether our hearts are spiritually receptive to the word of God. Some people have hard hearts, closed to God but open to the devil. Some have shallow hearts, capable of easy spiritual enthusiasm but incapable of long-term spiritual commitment. Others have conflicted hearts, in which faith in God competes hourly with worldly worries. Finally, some have open hearts that experience God’s grace and power to change. They are good dirt.

Unlike dirt, however, we have the power of choice. Whether the word of God takes deep root in us depends on whether we choose to listen to it. That is why Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

So, what kind of dirt do you choose to be?

Was Jesus Insane? Possessed? Opposed to Family Values? (Mark 3.20–35)


If I were inventing a messianic religion, I would not write the kind of stories about the Messiah we find in Mark 3.20–35.

According to that passage, when Jesus’ family heard about what he was doing, they formed a psychological opinion: “He is out of his mind.” Pious, well-educated religion professors made a spiritual diagnosis: “He is possessed by Beelzebub [i.e., the devil]!” When Jesus’ family arrived on the scene, no doubt to take him home and care for him, he brazenly asked, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” In a patriarchal society such as first-century Palestine, Jesus’ rhetorical question would have been taken as an insult.

New Testament scholars speak of the criterion of embarrassment in regard to the historical Jesus. If the evangelists included material in their Gospels that was embarrassing either to Jesus or the early church, then that material is historically reliable. What could be more embarrassing than an insane Jesus or a demon-possessed Jesus or an anti-“family values” Jesus? The material in Mark 3.20–35 is embarrassing, so we can be sure that we are dealing with the historical Jesus.

What spiritual lessons do we learn from these three vignettes?

First, just as Jesus experienced opposition from his closest family members, so we can expect opposition from those close to us when we take significant forward steps on our spiritual journey. Some people have been blessed to grow up in Christian. Others have not been. Any number of Christians have crossed the line of faith only to have their parents, siblings, spouse, and children denigrate their conversion experience. Just as those Christians felt alone in their faith, so Jesus no doubt felt alone when his family thought him insane. But just as, over time, Jesus’ mother and brothers came to faith in him and exercised leadership roles in the early church, so we can hope that our parents, siblings, spouse, and children will come to share our faith.

Second, Jesus has tremendous spiritual power to change lives. Jesus had a reputation as an exorcist. According to the teachers of the law, “By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” Jesus refuted their argument with simple logic: “How can Satan drive out Satan? …if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come.” One wonders if, upon hearing this, the well-educated teachers hung their heads in collective shame at their stupidity. Jesus went on to say: “In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man.” By implication, the devil is the strong man whom Jesus has overpowered. He has the power transform every person’s life, no matter how bad his or her initial spiritual condition is.

Third, Jesus prioritizes “kingdom family values.” Jesus was not hostile to families, his own or others’. Rather, Jesus prioritized the family of God. “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” The will of God includes taking care of one’s family (1 Tim. 5.4), but sometimes, what God wants of us and what our families want from us are in conflict, as they were between Jesus and his family. If that happens, our first duty is to do the will of our Heavenly Father.

Who Speaks for Jesus? (Mark 3.7–19)


Who speaks for Jesus?

Today, a cacophony of voices claims to speak for the “real Jesus.” The chapter titles of The Jesus Quest by Ben Witherington capture the essence of those contrary voices:

  • Jesus the Talking Head
  • Jesus the Itinerant Cynic Philosopher
  • Jesus, Man of the Spirit
  • Jesus the Eschatological Prophet
  • Jesus the Prophet of Social Change
  • Jesus the Sage: The Wisdom of God
  • Jesus: Marginal Jew or Jewish Messiah?

Which of these contradictory voices speaks for the real Jesus? Mark 3.7–19 offers two vignettes in answer to that question. Let’s take a close look at both.

In Mark 3.7–12, the demons speak for Jesus. This vignette is a summary statement about Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. So powerful were Jesus’ deeds that people from all throughout the region came to see him: “he had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him. Whenever the evil spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, ‘You are the Son of God.’” It is not surprising that the devils recognize God’s Beloved Son. They are, after all, very good theologians, having once served God in heaven. What is surprising is Jesus’ response to their orthodoxy: “he gave them strict orders not to tell who he was.” Why the concern for secrecy? Did Jesus reject the devils’ testimony because it was false? No. It was true. The problem was that they had wrenched theological content from its ethical context. The devils proclaimed Jesus’ sonship only when he exercised power against them. The crowds might mistakenly come to equate divine sonship with power. And if Jesus had the power to expel demons from bodies, might he not also have the power to expel Romans from the Holy Land? Neither the devils nor the crowds equated Jesus’ divine sonship with humility, servanthood, and the cross. But Jesus did, so he commanded the demons to shut up.

In Mark 3.13–19, the apostles speak for Jesus. Jesus “appointed twelve—designating them apostles—that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.” In other words, Jesus appointed apostles so that they might carry out his ministry when he was gone. Notice that they engaged in the same activities as Jesus: authoritative preaching and powerful deeds. But now notice that the first thing Jesus called the apostles to do was simply to “be with him.” The devils feared Jesus from afar; the disciples loved him up close. Through daily observation, they saw what it meant for Jesus to be God’s Beloved Son. They saw him taken to the cross. They saw him raised from the dead. They were eyewitnesses to his manner of life.

In time, of course, those apostles and their associates left us the books of the New Testament. As we consider the cacophony of voices claiming to speak for the “real Jesus,” we should listen to their voices first and foremost. And then we should follow Jesus, the Servant Son of God.

Who Jesus Is. How We Should Respond. (Mark 2.13–3.6)


No one enjoys conflict, but sometimes is helpful if it clarifies choices we need to make.

Mark 2.13–3.6 records four conflicts Jesus had with Pharisees. over (1) eating with sinners (2.13–17), (2) fasting (2.18–22), (3) picking grain on the Sabbath (2.23–28), and (4) healing the sick on the Sabbath (3.1–6). Each conflict clarified Jesus’ identity and mission, as well as our response to him.

First, the conflict over eating with sinners (2.13–17): Jesus called Levi son of Alphaeus to follow him. Levi was a tax collector. Then as now, no one likes a tax collector. In Jesus’ day, tax collectors were considered thieves at best and traitors at worst. The Romans hired locals to collect the taxes. Whatever amount the locals could collect above and beyond the required sum was their salary. The surcharge made them thieves. The fact that they worked for a foreign empire made them traitors. But Jesus made Levi a disciple anyway, and ate at his house. Seeing this, the Pharisees asked, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” Answer: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Second, the conflict over fasting (2.18–22): The spiritual regimen of the Pharisees included fasting. But they never saw Jesus’ disciples fast. They asked him why. Jesus responded by saying, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.” In other words, fasting is appropriate when you have occasion to mourn, but not when you have occasion to rejoice. Jesus’ presence with his disciples is always an occasion to rejoice.

Third, the conflict over picking grain on the Sabbath (2.23–28): The Law prohibits working on the Sabbath (Ex. 20.8–11). When the Pharisees saw the disciples handpicking some grain one Sabbath, they accused them of lawbreaking. Jesus responded by reminding them of 1 Samuel 21.1–6, when David “entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he gave some to his companions.” As far as Jesus was concerned, his disciples had done nothing wrong. (1) “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” His disciples were hungry and needed to eat. (2) “So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” In other words, if David could “violate” the Sabbath, then Jesus—who was a king greater than even David—could do the same, making him Lord of the Sabbath.

Fourth, the conflict over healing on the Sabbath (3.1–6): According to some rabbis, on the Sabbath, you could administer only enough aid to a sick person to keep him from worsening. If you helped him get better, you had worked on the Sabbath, thus violating the commandment. This legalism made Jesus angry. “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” The answer is obvious.

Who is Jesus? The Great Physician of sinful souls. The Bridegroom who calls us to a life of joy. The greater than David. And the Healer with power to do good. How should we respond? With repentance, joy, obedience, and good works.

Cheap Words and Hard Deeds (Mark 2.1–12)


Leon, Joseph, and Clyde all thought they were Jesus Christ. In reality, they were chronic mental patients at a hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan. They suffered from psychotic delusional disorder, grandiose type. In the 1960s, psychologist Milton Rokeach put Leon, Joseph, and Clyde together in a small group. He hoped that interacting with one another might cure them of their delusions, since—logically speaking—there could only be one Jesus Christ. John Ortberg comments on the results:

“The experiment led to some interesting conversations. One of the men would claim, ‘I’m the messiah, the Son of God. I am on a mission. I was sent here to save the earth.’

“‘How do you know?’ Rokeach would ask.

“‘God told me.’

“And one of the other patients would counter, ‘I never told you any such thing.’

“Aim for the three Messiahs and you end up playing the Three Stooges—Larry, Moe, and Curly arguing over their place in the Trinity. As we read about this, we don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

To be honest, I laughed out loud. Any lunatic, it seems, can claim to be the Son of God. But wait! In Mark 2.1–12, Jesus claimed the power to forgive sins—to do what only God can do. Does that mean Jesus was a lunatic?

Take a close look at Mark 2.1–12. Jesus had just returned to his adopted hometown of Capernaum. People gathered to hear him preach, including the friends of a paralytic man, who brought him on a mat for Jesus to heal. They couldn’t make their way into the house where Jesus was staying using the front door, so they climbed onto the roof, opened up a hole, and lowered their friend through it on a mat. Seeing the man, Jesus forgave his sins. That set off a short, intense theological controversy with some theology professors who were in the house:

“Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’

“Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, ‘Why are you thinking these things?  Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up, take your mat and walk”?  But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . . .’ He said to the paralytic, ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’ He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all.”

Notice Jesus’ argumentative strategy. He knows that words are cheap; he admits as much to the theology professors. But deeds—especially miraculous deeds—are hard to refute. So, to prove his power to forgive sins, he heals the paralytic. The truth of his words is proved by the power of his deeds.

Lessons from Jesus’ Miracles (Mark 1.21–45)


Mark 1.21–45 describes three miracles Jesus: the exorcism of a demon-possessed man (vv. 21–28), the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (vv. 29–34), and the cleansing of a man with leprosy (vv. 40–45).

What lessons about Jesus do these miracles teach us?

First, Jesus was a man of word and deed. We usually—and rightly—think of Jesus as an excellent teacher. “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law” (v. 22). And yet, during his lifetime, Jesus was also well known as an exorcist and miracle-worker, as the three miracles of Mark 1.21–45 attest.

We modern people appreciate the spiritual and moral depth of Jesus’ teaching. But Jesus’ miracles make us uncomfortable because the modern age has taught us to distrust events with supernatural explanations. Would Jesus have laughed or cried at our simplistic anti-supernaturalism? I don’t know, but I am certain he would have insisted on keeping word and deed together. The central doctrine of his teaching was, “The kingdom of God is near” (Mark 1.15). For him, God’s kingdom was not an intellectual abstraction but a demonstration of divine power. “If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God,” he said, “then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12.28). The power of Jesus’ deeds proved the truth of his words.

Second, Jesus’ ministry was holistic. He restored the spiritual wellbeing of the demon-possessed man, the physical wellbeing of Peter’s ill mother-in-law, and the social and emotional wellbeing of the leper. In biblical vocabulary, leprosy describes a variety of skin diseases. According to biblical law, whomever or whatever the leper touched became unclean. So the leper had to separate himself or herself from society and cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” whenever someone came near (Leviticus 13.45–46). According to Mark, “Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man” (v. 41). This gesture not only healed the man’s disease, it also reconnected him to human society.

Third, the power of Jesus’ success was prayer. “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed\” (v. 35). According to Luke 5.16, “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” In Mark 9.29, Jesus attributed a successful exorcism to prayer: “This kind can come out only by prayer.” Through prayer, Jesus tapped into the current of divine power that made his miracle-working possible.

Fourth, Jesus’ identity was clear. A demon exclaimed, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God” (v. 24). Oddly, Jesus commanded the spirit, “Be quiet!” (v. 25). According to verse 34: “he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.” And in verse 44, he told the leper, “See that you don’t tell this to anyone.” Why the concern for secrecy? Probably because a ministry like Jesus’ was susceptible to misinterpretation. The crowds wanted a powerful Messiah, not a crucified Savior. Jesus was both.

Indeed, we might say that Mark 1.21–45 shows the both/and character of Jesus. Both word and deed. Both spiritual and physical, social and emotional. Both ministry to others and solitary prayer. Both power and the cross. As we follow Christ, may we be both/and as well.

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