“After He went into a house, His disciples asked Him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out? ” And He told them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” Then they left that place and made their way through Galilee, but He did not want anyone to know it. For He was teaching His disciples and telling them, “The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill Him, and after He is killed, He will rise three days later.” But they did not understand this statement, and they were afraid to ask Him.” (Mark 9:28-32 HCSB)
Fear can be crippling and debilitating but it doesn’t have to be. For some, fear puts a halt to all of their hopes, dreams and ambitions. They are simply unable to get past their fears and it inhibits their ability to see past their fear and act on their faith. Fear can certainly be justified but it can also be irrational and unjustified and you become a prisoner of your fears. On the other hand, some folks think courage is the complete expulsion of fear but I think that is overstating it. Courage is really the ability to think, move, respond and act despite your fear.
Do you have fears that control you, your actions, your hopes, your dreams or your thoughts? In this week’s focal passage, the disciples are faced with a debilitating fear and Jesus calls them to recognize God’s hand and trust His plan. I think those are good words for us to hear and cling to when we are faced with overwhelming, debilitating fear, recognize God’s hand and trust His plan.
Two weeks ago, we listened as a father confessed his struggles with faith – “I believe, help my unbelief.” These are good words to hear afresh as we begin our study this week. I do believe, but I also struggle to faithfully live and act on those beliefs. But I have doubts, too, and sometimes those doubts overwhelm me and leave me embarrassed by my failures and grappling with sin. In essence, that’s exactly where we find the disciples this week – struggling with doubts and questions, embarrassed by their failures and grappling with sinful tendencies.
I included two verses from our previous study on purpose. The disciples are faced by their failure and they asked Jesus privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” As you’ll recall, Jesus replied: “This kind come out by nothing but prayer.” Prayer is, at its core, a declaration of our humanity and weakness and God’s deity and power. Whether you realize it or not, prayer is an admission of weakness and a cry for God’s help. It is only when you recognize and embrace that fact that you prayer can begin to be filled with God’s power through faith.
Real prayer acknowledges that I am weak but God is strong. I have failures but God always succeeds. I am often wrong but God is always right and just. I tend to misunderstand but God knows fully and understands all things. I am selfish and needy and God is loving and giving. There’s a really good reason we are the disciples and Jesus is the Teacher. In fact, that’s the very thing Mark tells us as he introduces Jesus next lesson:
“Then they left that place and made their way through Galilee, but He did not want anyone to know it. For He was teaching His disciples…”
Jesus has begun His journey towards Jerusalem and the cross. While the disciples are blissfully unaware of it, Jesus is very, very aware of it. He knows the time He has left to teach them and to get them ready for what lies ahead is quickly passing. He is actively avoiding public displays of healing and preaching and is spending all of His time teaching His disciples. The question is, are they truly learning?
Mark says He was teaching them and telling them, “The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill Him, and after He is killed, He will rise three days later.”
First, notice that the Son of Man “is being betrayed” or handed over to men. This is stated as a fact that is presently being done – a futuristic present tense. Something that is futuristic and will happen but the future action is so certain it is being stated in the present tense. Also, it is a passive action that is being done to the Son of Man by someone else. But by whom? With our knowledge of the historic events, it is tempting for us to suggest Judas as the one who will “betray” or hand Him over but, in this instance, that would be entirely wrong. This can be called a “divine passive” because God is the one handing Him over “into the hands of men.”
The Son of Man is being handed over (or betrayed) into the hands of men by the will, purpose and plan of God. Yes, Judas will sell Him out for a pittance but God is the one who has put the plan in place and is willfully and purposefully carrying it out… “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. (Rev. 13:8)” But let’s be honest, this is really hard for us to grasp. It is hard to wrap your head around this idea and understand it, fully. God sacrificing Himself for our sin.
Why must our sin be redeemed through something so repulsive, something so abhorrent as the humiliating death of a subservient man on a Roman cross? Why? To keep us from taking credit for it. If we die, we’re simply getting what we deserve. But Jesus, He doesn’t deserve to die. He’s done nothing worthy of death. But God is handing Him over, handing Him over to men so that they can kill the innocent Lamb of God. He will be handed over to men. They will kill Him, and after He is killed, He will rise three days later. But all of this is a part of God’s perfect plan.
Mark then tells us, the disciples “did not understand this statement and they were afraid to ask Him.” They didn’t understand and were afraid to ask Him. We often misunderstand God’s plan. Not just His plan regarding Jesus death and our redemption, we also misunderstand His plan regarding our life.
Jesus told the disciples, “if you are going to be My disciple, you must deny self, take up your cross and follow Me.” How often do we misunderstand those simple but hard words? To follow Him is not get what we want in life, but to deny self. To follow Him is not to avoid pain and sacrifice, but to embrace the cross and to faithfully walk the path of suffering and sacrifice.
During this period of intense teaching, Jesus stopped all of His public healing and preaching and focused solely on what the disciples needed to learn in order to prepare them for the days ahead, the cross and what it would bring. I’m not sure we fully understand the struggle the disciples faced in understanding and embracing what Jesus was trying to teach them.
We seem to have reduced this path of obedience to a simple set of theological beliefs and the historical accuracy of some horrific events. If I believe that Jesus is God’s Son and that He died on a cross and rose again then everything’s good, right? In the process of emphasizing salvation by grace through faith, we’ve minimized the importance of obedience. Yet, Jesus specifically said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commands.” (Jn. 14:15)
Please, don’t misunderstand me. Salvation IS by grace through faith but obedience is an essential element of real, saving faith. That’s why James insists that real faith acts and doesn’t just talk. (see James 2:14-26) It is also extremely important to remember that true obedience is much deeper than just outward appearances. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for being “whitewashed tombs” where everything looks clean and fresh on the outside but the inside is full of death and destruction. It is that kind of attitude that He was specifically addressing in much of His discourse in the sermon on the mount (Matt 5-7) and on the plain (Lk 6).
Truth be told, the church has done a very poor job of making disciples and getting them to follow Jesus, deny self and take up their cross in recent years. We’re focused more numbers and budget than on discipleship and that results in people who are more interested in entertainment than they are in worship, focused more on comfort than on self denial, focused more on cultural success and personal recognition than on service and sacrifice. It results in people who are more focused on outward appearances than on inward obedience, change and spiritual growth.
Why was it so hard for the disciples to grasp a Messiah that “is being betrayed into the hands of men, who will be killed and then rise three days later”? Because that kind of Messiah went against what they’d been taught and had come to expect. It is really, really hard to reject cultural beliefs and expectations.
It is really, really hard to do the same in our culture. We’ve come to expect a Messiah who endorses our expectations and encourages our dreams and not one who rejects them as selfish and greedy. We’ve come to expect a Messiah who waves an American flag, encourages nationalistic pride and pursuit of the American dream. Yet, what we find when we look more closely at His teaching is a Messiah who calls upon us to “seek first God’s kingdom” and all those things that you need and others are relentlessly pursuing will be provided for you.
In essence, Jesus is calling for us to live in a world with a radically different focus and to embrace an economy that is the opposite of what we’ve come to expect. You don’t focus on yourself and your personal needs and desires, you focus on God and on loving Him more than anything else in life. You don’t become rich by being ruthless, greedy and self seeking you become rich by being kind, giving and by loving others in the same way you love yourself.
You see, the path of obedience towards God doesn’t take you down a familiar, comfortable path. No, the path of obedience towards God veers off at a sharp angle from that familiar path. It heads off into unfamiliar territory and takes you into uncomfortable circumstances. It takes you along a route where you recognize just how spiritually poor you are and where you learn to mourn over the poor choices you’ve made in life. You stop at a bench and sit beside a hurting soul and you gently respond to their hurt. You linger for a bit on that bench as you begin to sense a hunger and a thirst, not for food and drink but for righteousness. As you continue your journey, you show mercy to a struggling fellow traveler and, in return, are shown mercy in your struggles. (See Matt. 5:3-12)
If you want to experience the power of God then you must embrace the plan of God. If you want to understand then you must be willing to walk His path, the path of service, the path of pain and sacrifice, the path of self denial. You can’t know God and experience God if you’re unwilling to walk the path of God.
The disciples didn’t understand and were afraid to ask because they didn’t want to walk this path, the path of pain and sacrifice. They had a lot to learn about the path of obedience. So do we…
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