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Series: Markan prologue

The literary structure of Mark 1:1-15

(Rewritten)

We’re beginning a new series today on the Gospel of Mark. A few things about Mark to begin with. It was most likely the first gospel written. And it likely contains the stories and teachings of Jesus that the apostle Peter passed down [Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses] and John Mark (Acts 12:12, 25; 13:5, 13-14; 15:37-40; Colossians 4:10; Philemon 1:24; 2 Timothy 4:11) later wrote out. These things are likely, I think, but they’re not from Scripture.

With regard to the Gospel itself, a few observations:

  • It’s fast paced. “Immediately” seems to be one of Mark’s favorite words.
  • Its stories are usually longer with more vivid details than Matthew or Luke.
  • And yet it’s the shortest Gospel, because it has less teaching material in it than either Matthew or Luke.

We begin with Mark’s introduction which covers the first 15 verses of the book. Notice that it’s bracketed by the phrase “good news” (or Gospel) in v. 1 and in vs. 14-15 (2x). And both of these sections have elements of timing in them – “the beginning” in v. 1 and “the time is fulfilled” and the kingdom is “at hand” in vs 14-15.

The whole introduction turns on the first three verses, which contain a prophetic word that a messenger is to come first, and then the Lord will come. [This sequence is reinforced in v. 7 by John’s message, “after me” he will come.]

Alright, let’s jump in.

Mark 1:1-8

The first phrase

1The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the anointed one, the Son of God –

When Mark says, “the beginning,” this has to do with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, following John the Baptist’s work of preparation [see Acts 10:37]. But it can also refer to the whole Gospel. Mark is saying, this is how the Christian movement began.

We learn several things here about who Jesus is. 1) He is the “Christ.” This is the Greek version of the Hebrew word which means “Messiah” or more literally “the anointed one,” which is what I’m going with. This refers back to the Old Testament practice of anointing someone with oil when they are commissioned by God to do something. It was especially connected to the expected son of David who would come as the anointed one, to save God’s people.

2) Jesus is the “son of God.” This phrase is most often associated with the kings of Israel (2 Samuel 7:13-14; Psalm 2:7; Psalm 89:26-27), and sometimes Israel itself (Exodus 4:22-23; Hosea 11:1; Jeremiah 31:9, 20). It can also refer to divine beings or angels (e.g. the sons of God in Job). Basically it means one who rules, although we will see that Jesus is God’s son in unique and special way (e.g. Mark 1:11; 14:61-62).

3) Finally the phrase “good news” tells us something about Jesus. In Isaiah it refers to the coming of God to save Israel and to establish his rule or kingdom (Isaiah 40:9; 52:7; 61:1). In the Roman world it was used to announce the success of an Emperor or the birth of a new Emperor. In both contexts it is a royal announcement. And so this tells us that Jesus is a king.

By means of his introduction Mark gives his readers the privilege to know a good bit about who Jesus is before the story begins, while the people in the story struggle to understand who Jesus is, to the end.

The prophecy

2as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, 3the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

This is the only place in all of Mark that he quotes Scripture. And, of course, this happens right at the beginning of his Gospel. So this is really important.

Although Mark says, “as it is written in Isaiah,” he is actually quoting two (or more) passages. This is just how they sometimes did things at this time, combining passages like this and just using one name.

Let’s look at the two key quotes here in reverse order. Isaiah 40:3 says in part, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God.’” (LXX). In context this refers to the announcement, by the voice, of the end of exile in Babylon and God’s promise to bring Israel back to its land. This is framed by Isaiah as a second Exodus from Babylon to the land of Israel. [The path here is God’s, but like with the original Exodus, it is God and his people who journey together to the land. The Isaiah Targum speaks of the way of God and the congregation of our God.] [Mark’s quote here can also be translated to match the parallelism of the Hebrew version – “A voice cries ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Witherington]

And then we have Malachi 3:1 which says in part, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” [Mark’s version is a little different, which we will look at later]. This person is further identified in Malachi 4:5-6 as Elijah, who is commissioned to bring about repentance in Israel before God comes to visit them.

In Mark’s narrative, John the Baptist is the messenger, as we will see today. But also Jesus is the Lord who comes. In both passages God comes after the messenger. This, then is an amazing statement about Jesus’ divine identity, which we will come back to in a later message.

Now, by quoting these passages we get Mark’s insight into what’s going on with the coming of John the Baptist and then Jesus. As I said, Isaiah speaks of a second Exodus out of exile back to the land. And several prophets spoke of how things would radically change; how God would reign in glory in a splendid temple and Israel would be established in the land and at peace. Well, the people came back, but they struggled, still under Gentile rule, the Persians, and still with no sense that anything had really changed. So there was disillusionment.

Well, the book of Malachi picks up in this context. He tells the people that the holdup on the fulfillment of the promises is due to their sin. And so he predicts that God will send a messenger, Elijah to prepare Israel for his coming in power to reign. And he is to prepare them by calling them to repentance so that when God comes, it won’t end in further judgment. [I am indebted to Rikk Watts for this construal of Malachi’s role.]

So Mark is saying – this is what’s going on with the coming of John and then Jesus. God is working to bring about his kingdom; to fulfill his promises to his people of salvation and blessing.

The fulfillment – John in the wilderness 

After the prediction of the messenger who will first prepare the way, John shows up doing just this.

4John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

Now, not everyone came, of course, but Mark is emphasizing his success.

The connection between the messenger and John is clear. The messenger is to prepare the way, which includes calling for repentance on the part of Israel (Malachi 4:15-16). And John calls the people to repentance.

Also, the messenger is associated with the wilderness as is Elijah.  Well, John is in the wilderness and he is telling people to prepare the way.

And then we have v. 6.

6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.

The messenger is identified as Elijah in some sense and John looks just like Elijah. In 2 Kings 1:8 someone describes Elijah in this way: “He wore a garment of hair with a belt of leather around his waist.” As Jesus says later in Mark 9:13, “Elijah has come” and he is referring to John the Baptist. (See also Luke 1:17).

Notice how what John is doing fits with Isaiah and Malachi’s vision of the need to prepare the people for the coming of God. In the first exodus, Israel crossed through the Red Sea. And then with Joshua the Jordan river. John is symbolically having Israelites go through the waters again (here the Jordan river.) So John is calling Israel to be reconstituted as a new people, ready for the coming of God. And since the leaders in Jerusalem rejected him, he is calling out a remnant to make them ready for the Lord. All of this points to the fulfillment of the promise of the prophets about Israel’s salvation. It all fits together.

The fulfillment – John’s message

7And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

A key part of John’s ministry was calling people to be ready for the coming one (Matthew 11:3, Acts 13:25). He describes him as the mighty one.

There’s a Jewish saying that a disciple is to act as a slave to their teacher, except for taking off their sandals (b. Ketub. 96a). But here John is saying he is not fit even to do this slave work for the mighty one.

John also speaks of the coming one as the Spirit baptizer. The one who will inundate people with the Spirit, like he does with water.

This has reference to several promises God makes to his people in the Old Testament:

  • Joel 2:28-29 – “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.”
  • Ezekiel 36:27 – “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
  • Isaiah 44:3 – “I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.”

John’s water baptism was preparatory. The coming One’s Spirit baptism brings the reality of the promises.

What do we learn?

This teaches us about God’s plans. They are from of old. This was all pointed to by the prophets, Isaiah and Malachi and repeated by John. God’s plans are orderly. The messenger come first to prepare and after this comes the Lord to bring salvation. God’s plans are sure and true. It came to pass just as it was supposed to, which is the story Mark is telling us about. This should lead us to trust in God’s full outworking of his plan to bring it all to completion, as we wait our Lord’s second coming.

And speaking of his coming, we need to continue to be prepared for God’s coming to us. Are we single mindedly focused on God and serving him? Or are we off following the world, waiting time, focused on this life and not finishing the mission he gave us to expand his kingdom? Are you prepared? He could come at any time.

Our title today is Jesus is our hope! The theme is hope because the message of Easter is a message of hope and because Jesus is all about bringing hope to people. This is clear from when Jesus walked the earth. Here are some examples from the gospels:

  • Jesus gave hope to the sick. Mark 1:40-42 tells the story of a man with leprosy. He came to Jesus and asked for healing. He said, “If you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus was moved with compassion – and healed the man immediately. He was set free from a condition that had ruined his life. And now he was able to move forward and live again.
  • Jesus gave hope to those who had sinned. In Luke 7:36-50 a woman, most likely a prostitute, came to Jesus in tears and anointed his feet as an expression of devotion and as a response to his message of repentance. Jesus said to her “your sins are forgiven.” Her repentance was accepted. She was forgiven and she was given a chance for a new life; a fresh start.
  • Jesus gave hope to those who were enslaved by evil powers. Mark 1:23-26 tells of how a demonized man was set free by Jesus. He simply said, “Come out of him” and the demon had to leave. This man was miserable and enslaved, but Jesus set him free and now he had new life.
  • Jesus gave hope to those who were excluded. Luke 5:27-32 tells how Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. Those not acceptable to the rest of society. Instead of being outcasts, now they were befriended by Jesus and given another chance.
  • Jesus gave hope to those who were confused. Mark 6:34 says, “Jesus saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. Those who were lost and needed guidance learned from the good Shepherd himself, the paths of righteousness and peace.
  • Jesus gave hope to those who needed new purpose in their lives. Matthew 9:9 recounts how Jesus called Matthew out of a dead-end situation in life, a tax collector for the very empire that was oppressing his people. Jesus said to him “follow me.” that is, come and work with me. And he did. Matthew found a new life focus that was full of meaning and true significance.
  • Jesus gave hope to those who needed God to be near. God worked through Jesus by the power of the Spirit. God’s presence was real to people when Jesus was around. In Luke 7:16, after Jesus raised a young man from the dead, the crowds said, “God has visited his people!” Those who felt far away, even abandoned by God, were brought close, as the Spirit worked through Jesus.

So in all of these examples we see people who were suffering, miserable, confused, disillusioned; who were despairing. And Jesus gave these very ones hope.

But the world we live in doesn’t like the hope Jesus gives. It tells us to chase after false hopes that are empty and useless. And if we do hope in Jesus, it seeks to crush this.

In Jesus’ own day, the guardians of the way things are – the authorities and the powers of evil caught up to Jesus. And they killed him. As the two men on the road to Emmaus said, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). Jesus gave them hope, but now their hopes were dashed.

But guess what? Jesus didn’t stay dead! Amen? The “powers that be” thought they had extinguished our hope; they thought they had extinguished Jesus. But they failed! And oh how they failed. As the angel said to those who looked for Jesus’ dead body, “He has risen; he is not here” (Mark 16:6).

Jesus lives! And so our hope lives. For since Jesus is still alive, he is ever with us, to continue to help us. And so I ask . . .

  • Do you suffer sickness? Are you in need of healing? The same Jesus who healed a leper and so many others, still lives to heal us and help us in our suffering. And when the Father says it’s time, Jesus will give us a new resurrection body that will live forever without pain or suffering. We too have hope for healing and the redemption of our bodies.  Jesus is our hope!
  • Do you feel guilt and shame for sin you have committed? The same Jesus who forgave sins and who laid down his life on the cross for the forgiveness of sins,  still lives to forgive us when we turn to him in repentance. We too have the hope of forgiveness. Our guilt and shame can be taken away. We can have a new, clean, fresh start. Jesus is our hope!
  • Are you enslaved by powerful evil forces; unable to break free from sinful habits? The same Jesus who cast out demons with a word, still lives to deliver us from the evil one. We too have hope of freedom and new life from the powers of evil that seek to enslave and destroy us. Jesus is our hope!
  • Do you feel excluded, alienated, left out? The same Jesus who welcomed any and all who would follow him, still lives to befriend us. We too have hope of connection with Jesus; of acceptance by him; of relationship with him – and his people. Jesus is our hope!
  • Do you need guidance in your life? Are you confused about God’s will? The same Jesus who taught the crowds of old, still lives and makes known to us his teaching. We too have hope that we can know God’s way and that we can learn, from the good shepherd himself, the paths of peace. Jesus is our hope!
  • Do you feel adrift in your life; without a purposeThe same Jesus who gave Matthew new direction, still lives to call us from our dead ends and our wrong turns – to come and follow him and to finish what he began. We too have hope for a meaningful and significant life doing what God has called us to do and what God has gifted us to do. Jesus is our hope!
  • Do you feel separated from God; that God is far awayThe same Jesus who made God present to the people of old by the Spirit, still lives and he pours out this same Holy Spirit into our hearts and lives so that God lives in us. We too have hope of knowing and being near to God; to have a relationship with God; to have God come and live within us by the Spirit. Jesus is our hope!

Indeed, no matter what problem or circumstance we find ourselves in, because he lives Jesus gives us hope. A hope that cannot be crushed, but that sustains through all of life.

 

Last week we began looking at barriers to effective prayer, things that keep us from getting our prayers answered, and also how to overcome these obstacles. Today we look at several more, and we begin with –

4. Wrong relationships with others

What I’m saying here is that we can’t be in right relationship with God, if we’re not in right relationship with others, or at least having done all that we can to be in right relationship with them. Our horizontal (as it were) relationships with other people, affect our vertical relationship with God. They are interconnected. And so broken relationships with others, hinder our relationship with God and thus our prayers to God.

Here’s an example that Jesus taught about, when we wrong someone. Matthew 5:23-24 – “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister and then come offer your gift.” He’s talking about coming into the temple to offer a gift, to worship, to pray to God. And if while you’re doing this you remember that there’s a broken relationship with others, and the context here is that it’s broken by your angry, hurtful, damaging words, go make it right with the other person first, and then come to relate to God. Why? Because it affects your ability to pray and worship.

Another example is mistreating your spouse. Peter says in 1 Peter 3:7 – “Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman . . . so that your prayers may not be hindered.” What’s he saying? If you’re mistreating your wife; if you’re harsh in your words or violent in your actions, your prayers will be hindered! [See also 1 Timothy 2:8 speaking to husbands]. And this certainly applies the other way around as well, wives don’t mistreat your husbands.

Indeed, it applies to all our relationships with others, family, neighbors, coworkers, strangers, enemies. How you interact with them can affect your prayer life – if you are treating them wrongly. And so to be effective pray-ers; to be in right relationship with God, so that your prayers are heard you must tend to your relationships. Make sure you are in right relationship with others. And if there’s a problem, do all you can to make it right, from your end of the relationship.

5. Asking God for things, that we don’t give to others

We say, “Oh God, I need your help with this and that. I need your mercy; I have done wrong. Lord, I need you to provide for my material needs.” But then, when others come to us and say “I need your help, I need your mercy, I need assistance with my material needs” – we say “No way!”

There’s a principle here, God won’t give us, what we won’t give to others. God doesn’t tolerate such double standards.

A clear example of this is asking God for forgiveness. Jesus said in Matthew 6:15, “If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  We can ask God for forgiveness all day long, but if we’re not giving it to those who have done harm to us and have come to us seeking mercy – we will not get it from God. As the passage says, “neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

But the promise in Matthew 6:14 is that, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” If you give mercy to those who seek it from you, God will give you mercy when you seek it from him.

This principle that, God won’t give us, what we won’t give to others, is also true in other areas. Take for instance asking God to provide for your needs. Proverbs 21:13 says, “Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.” If you’re someone who turns away others who come to you with legitimate needs, God will not hear you in your day of trouble; God will turn away from you.

But on the other hand, the psalmist says in Psalm 41:1– “Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble, the Lord delivers him.” If you help the one in need, God will help you in your day of need. So we should give freely to others, mercy and help, and God will give generously to you.

6. Doubting God and God’s promises

God gives us, in the words of 2 Peter 1:4, “many great and precious promises” that God will care for us; that God will give us his mercy. James 1:6-8 talks about one such promise, praying for wisdom from God. It says, “But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” When we doubt God and God’s promises, it makes us unable to receive what God wants to give us.

Here’s an example of doubt as a hindrance to receiving what God want to give us. Turn if you will to Mark 6:1-6.

1He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? 3Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. 4And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” 5And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. 6And he marveled because of their unbelief.

Faith in God and God’s promises is what opens the door for God to work in our lives. So if we want our prayers answered we need to lay aside doubt, and choose to have confidence in God and God’s promises; to rely on God, who is more reliable than anyone. As 1 Thessalonians 5:24 says, “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”

7. A lack of persistence in our prayers

Jesus talks about the importance of this in Luke 18:1-8. This is the story of the woman who kept coming to the judge to ask for justice, who finally received an answer because of her persistence. Luke tells us that Jesus taught in this parable that “we ought always to pray and not lose heart” – v. 1. He taught us in this story “to cry out to God day and night” – v. 7

It’s one thing if God says no, and in biblical tradition you can press God up to three times when he says no – e.g. Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Paul praying about his thorn. But if there isn’t a no, go for it!

Why is persistence important? Firs of all, God wants to see where our heart is. Deuteronomy 4:29, says, you will seek and find the Lord, “if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul.” Is this a casual thing, or are we really seeking God for an answer? Our heart is made known in the persistence or lack of it in our prayers.

And also, we are involved in spiritual warfare. There’s a third party involved, and Satan and the powers of evil resist God’s will being done on earth. And our persistent prayer plays a role in overcoming this spiritual opposition.

So let’s not give up as we seek to have God’s will come to pass in our lives and in our congregation.

Last week we looked at our need to pray so that God can work through us here to grow his kingdom. Today, I want to continue on this theme and offer some teaching that I hope will help equip us to be better pray-ers under the title, “Overcoming Barriers to Effective Prayer” We’ll look at three barriers today – things that hinder our prayers from being effective or even heard, and next week, I hope to share more on this topic.

1. Harboring unrighteousness in our lives

Sin blocks our relationship with God. As Isaiah 59:2 says, “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.” In this situation, God doesn’t hear us when we pray.

And that’s because it’s hard to communicate with someone when you don’t have a relationship with them, or especially when there is a broken relationship, unless, of course, you are talking about that brokenness and trying to fix it.

And let me be clear, God’s ears are always open to hear prayers of confession and repentance! No matter what you’ve done. No sin you have committed, no wrong you have done is too great that God cannot give you the mercy of his forgiveness.

But, if we stubbornly hold on to our sin that’s a different thing. I’m not talking here about being perfect. I am talking about willful, known sin that we choose to do and cling to it. We are just plain choosing not to obey. If we hold stubbornly to these sins God will not hear our prayers. God will not respond to us.

  • The blind man whom Jesus healed expressed it well when he said in, John 9:31 – “We know that God does not listen to sinners . . .” that is, those who choose to disobey God.
  • In Psalm 66:18, talking about prayer, the psalmist says, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.”

Well, if God doesn’t hear us when we cling to our sin, we can say with confidence that God does hear us when we confess and find forgiveness for our sins and when we walk in God’s ways

There are many scriptures that speak to this.

  • The blind man whom Jesus healed also said in John 9:31, “. . . if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.”
  • 1 John 3:22 – “And we receive from God whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.”
  • 1 Peter 3:12 – “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer.”
  • James 5:16 – “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

All of these passages teach us that the way we live our lives does make a difference in our prayer life.

If this is an obstacle to your prayers, I encourage you, seek forgiveness and then choose to walk in God’s ways. And then, as 1 Peter says, “his ears (will) be open to (your) prayer,” and as James 5:16 says, your prayers will be “powerful and effective” as well.

2. Self-righteousness

We’re talking about “pride” here; a wrongful overestimation of who we are and how good we are. This is the artificial substitute for what we just looked at. It is not the righteousness that comes from God working in us as he transforms our lives, but rather our own deeds done in our own strength to try to impress God and others, accompanied by the attitude that we are better than others.

Please turn to Luke 18:9-14. v. 9 tells us, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” So this is definitely about self-righteousness.

Let me read for you vs. 10-13

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.”

So both men came to the temple, the place of prayer. And they both offered up to God their prayers. And as the story tells us God heard the tax collector’s prayer, but God did not hear the Pharisee’s prayer. Why? God does not respond to pride and arrogance

As v. 14 of our  passage says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.” The Pharisee received nothing from God. But God does listen to those who humble themselves before him. Again v. 14, “But the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

It is as Psalm 138:6 says, “For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar.”  When we are self-righteousness, God keeps us at a distance. But God listens to the lowly when they call out to him.

A final barrier for today is –

3. A selfish focus to your prayers

This is where prayer is really all about you and your desires. James 4:3 says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” The context of James 4 has to do with the people’s selfishness, worldly desires, and ambitions. And the point is that God doesn’t answer these kinds of requests.

A good example of this is from Mark 10:35-45. In v. 35 James and his brother John say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Wow! Doesn’t this sound like a lot of what goes for prayer today? And there are some who teach Christians to pray this way.

What did they want? v. 37, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” In v. 40 Jesus tells them no. Only God can determine who will be exalted in this way. And in vs. 42-45 he teaches his disciples to forsake this kind of worldly ambition to be over others. Rather they are to lower themselves and serve others.

James and his brother John asked, but they did not receive. And that’s because God doesn’t answer selfish requests. (Or if he does it tends to be in the form of judgment – Numbers 11).

Prayer is about God’s will, not just what we want. What we have to learn and remember is that God is not a Cosmic Santa Claus. And the point of prayer is not to give him our daily Christmas list of gifts we want. God is not here to cater to our dreams, our ambitions, our cravings, and what we covet. The point of prayer is to have God’s will be done.

The second petition of the Lord’s prayer sums this up. Jesus taught us to pray, “your will (God) be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And although God allows us to ask for a change in his will or to reconsider the details, and God may or may not grant it – we ask not out of self-centered ambition, but because we are seeking out God’s mercy and glory in a situation.

Alright, we have looked at three barriers to effective prayer and how to overcome them:

1 Harboring unrighteousness – seek forgiveness and walk in God’s ways

 2. Self-righteousness – humble yourself before God

 3. A selfish focus – pray for God’s will to be done

We’ll pick this up again next week and look at how to overcome several other barriers to effective prayer.

I want to talk about prayer today, and the next two Sundays. I’m doing this to help us get focused as we begin to have designated times of prayer for our congregation and the work of God here.

God calls us to work for his kingdom. As a congregation this means we are to be growing in our lives of ministry and service to God and reaching out to others to lead them into God’s kingdom. But when we think about this task, we soon realize that –

We have to pray!

That’s because we can’t do any of this in our own strength. Oh sure, we might be able to do some things through our natural talents and gifts. There are some who have built whole huge churches, but in the flesh. Later you find out they are not even a believer or are involved in something like adultery. And think of the various  cult leaders who have gathered a crowd, and many that still grow today. God is not in this.

What we can’t do in our own strength is what God calls us to do. In the power of our flesh we can’t do anything of eternal significance; we can’t produce fruit that remains

As Psalm 127:1 says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” When God calls us to do something, God has to do it through us. Otherwise we are ultimately working in vain.

Also, we have to pray because there’s a whole realm of spiritual powers out there that stand against and oppose God’s work. There’s a spiritual battle going on. When we try to do something for the kingdom, there will be a response! It might be opposition from the community. It might be disruption in our church through conflict or distraction. It might be attacks on our physical health. Or it might be discouragement because of difficult testing and trials.

Ephesians 6:12 says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Once we realize our own weakness on the one hand and the powers arrayed against us on the other, we understand the need and importance of prayer for accomplishing God’s call in our congregation. We understand that, if we want to fulfill God’s call, we need to call on God. If we want to do things for the kingdom, if we want to move forward here with the work that God has called us to, we have to be praying.

As an encouragement to prayer, I want you to –

Know that God truly listens to our prayers

It’s not true that everything is already predetermined by God, so that prayer is ultimately meaningless. Rather, God invites us to work with him in bringing to pass his plan to redeem this world.

And God listens to us regarding the details of his plan for the world, the timing and the scope of who is involved.  God actually listens to and takes into account our input. So when we pray, we are involved with God in changing this world and bringing in the kingdom!

Here are some examples of God listening to people’ prayers. Abraham interceding for Sodom: Genesis 18:16-33. God fully intended to destroy Sodom for its sin. But Abraham prayed. He said to God, if you find 50 righteous people will you spare the city? God said yes! And then he went on to say, if you find 45? if you find 40? 30? 20? 10? And God listened to Abraham and agreed to spare the city for 10 righteous people.

God was willing to change the plan. But, as you remember, there weren’t even 10 righteous people there. But God did spare Lot and his family since, as Abraham had said, the righteous should not perish with the unrighteous.

Moses praying for Israel after the golden calf: Deuteronomy 9-10. God had determined to destroy Israel. Moses says in Deuteronomy 9:25, “the Lord had said he would destroy you.” (Also 9:14; 19). But Moses prayed for Israel. He stepped in and interceded. And Moses said, “The Lord listed to me . . . The Lord was unwilling to destroy you” – Deuteronomy 10:10. What God had determined to do was altered through Moses’ prayer.

Finally, while dying, Hezekiah prayed for longer life: Isaiah 38. The prophet Isaiah came to the king and said, “Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die, you shall not recover.” Isaiah 38:1. You can’t get any clearer than this! But Hezekiah prayed. And God responded – “I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add fifteen years to your life” – Isaiah 38:5. The details of God’s plan were changed in response to prayer.

In all these examples we learn that God takes into account our prayers in how he accomplishes his will and purpose in this world. Especially when our prayers are shaped by his perspective and purposes. So we need to make our requests known to God. You have the ear of the King of all creation! Are you taking advantage of this; are you speaking?

As further encouragement to pray, not only does God listen to us –

God does amazing things through our prayers

– to work out his plan for this world. We’ve already seen some examples of this, but I want to give you some more from 2 Kings:

  • 2 Kings 4 – Elisha prayed and a boy was raised from the dead.
  • 2 Kings 6 – Elisha prayed and made the Syrian army blind and thereby overcame them.
  • 2 Kings 19 – Hezekiah prayed and God defeated an army of 185,000 in one night, without human help.

God still works in this way. Let’s look at the New Testament book of Acts:

  • Acts 4 – The church prayed and the house where they prayed was shaken and the gospel went forth with power
  • Acts 9 – Peter prayed and a woman was raised from the dead
  • Acts 12 – The church prayed and Peter was released from prison by an angel
  • Acts 28 – Paul prayed and many were healed

James 5:16-18 sums this up nicely – “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” Our prayers do make a difference!

It goes on to say, “Elijah was a human being like us.” In other words, he was a weak just like us. Remember how he ran away from Jezebel? He’s no different than us! But the text goes on, “and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.” (NRSV)

Even though we are weak, God can do amazing things through our prayers as well, which leads me to my point today

I’m calling us to renewed prayer

Without prayer we won’t get anything done. But with prayer we can accomplish God’s calling. Paul knew this and that’s why he asked for prayer. He said, “keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel” -Ephesians 6:18-19.

If Paul needed this prayer, how much more do I need it; how much more do we as a congregation need it! So let’s increase our prayers for God to work among us and through us.

Pray for me, please! Pray for each other for God to stir us up and to empower us by the Spirit for his kingdom work. Pray that God will use us to connect with our community in new and powerful ways. And pray that God will touch and transform lives.

 

Series on baptism

We’re coming to the end of our series on baptism this morning. And we come to a topic that has been quite controversial. How does baptism relate to children? And as you know, churches have different views on this.

One of the defining beliefs of the Mennonite church is that baptism is for people old enough to choose it for themselves. That is, baptism is for believers. We were originally called Anabaptists by those who opposed us, which means “re-baptizers.” That is, we gave believers’ baptism to those who had already been infant baptized, because infant baptism is not based on faith. And at the time of the Reformation in the 1500’s, both Catholics and Protestants branded us as heretics and killed Anabaptists for this practice.

Of course, now believers’ baptism is as common as can be. And thankfully no one is getting killed over this. But the question remains. Biblically speaking, how does baptism relate to infants and children? Or to put it another way, how should we minister God’s blessing to children?

Our text today is Mark 10:13-16

13And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. 14But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 15Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” 16And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.

I’ll be referring back to this passage as we go along.

I want to begin by pointing out that –

Jesus had a very high regard for children

The word “child” (παιδιον) in our passage covers “infants” all the way up to someone who is nearing adolescence. We know this because of how the word is used in the New Testament.

  • In Luke’s account of this story in chapter 18 he mentions “even infants” being brought to Jesus, and these are called children. (Also in Luke 1:59 the word refers to an 8-day-old).
  • And in Mark 5:39-42 it refers to a 12-year-old.

As one Greek dictionary says, it refers to “a child, normally below the age of puberty” (BDAG). So even though some translations say “little children” it really does mean any preadolescent child. (The word was originally a diminutive of pais (παις) but in the New Testament it has lost its diminutive force, Louw and Nida).

Now, despite what we think today, the ancient world had a low view of children. They had little or no social status. They were seen as little better than slaves, at least until they became adults. In contrast to this, Jesus has a high regard for children indeed.

We see this first of all in that Jesus teaches that children belong to the kingdom. In our passage the disciples sought to keep children away from Jesus. Then v. 14 says, “But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me; do not hinder them for to such belongs the kingdom of God.’”

The disciples, apparently, held a low view of children. But Jesus rebuked them. In fact, he gets mad. “What are you doing!” And then he corrects their wrong thinking, “Don’t hinder them from coming.” Why should they have access to Jesus? Because they’re a part of God’s kingdom already.

This is a status that God gives them, due to their age. A part of what it means to be a child in Scripture is that they are not fully able to discern and choose between right and wrong for themselves. For instance, Deuteronomy 1:39 talks about “. . . your little ones . . . and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil . . ..” This is why we talk about an age of accountability. Children are not able to be fully morally accountable before God, and so God acts in grace towards them.

Also, Jesus teaches that children can teach us how to enter the kingdom. In v. 15 Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” In the parallel passage in Matthew 18:3-4 Jesus clarifies that this has to do with their humility. Now, I don’t think that he’s referring to humility as a personal virtue. Not all kids have this.  Rather, he’s talking about their social lowliness. While the disciples are focused on who is the greatest in this passage (Matthew 18:1) Jesus teaches them that they need to forget about this to enter the kingdom. And children model this.

Children represent God to usJesus said in Mark 9:37, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” This idea is based on what’s called the “shaliach principle,” which says that a person’s representative is as the person. So how you respond to the representative is how you respond to the sender. Jesus teaches here that, not only do his apostles represent him (Matthew 10:40), but children do as well. And so how you receive children reflects how you receive God.

And finally, Jesus received the worship of children. In Matthew 21:15-16, when he proceeded into Jerusalem, children cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” The Pharisees criticized this, but Jesus accepted it.

As we know, children can come to have faith in God. That is, beyond their status of being a part of the kingdom, simply by virtue of being a child – they can have a real relationship with God. This is what I call childhood faith. And this should be encouraged and cultivated. Samuel is an example of this (1 Samuel 3).

So in all these ways, Jesus shows us his high regard for children. But  –

Does this mean we should baptize children?

I’m just gonna tell you briefly why we think this is not the best approach.

First of all, with regard to infants and small children, baptism is always connected to adults choosing faith and repentance. (I say faith and repentance understanding that they are two sides to the same coin. To believe in Jesus is to do what he says, repent. And to repent is to believe in the one who tells you to repent.)

This is what is taught in the New Testament. For instance, Peter taught on the day of Pentecost – “Repent and be baptized . . .” – Acts 2:38. The two go together.

And in the examples we have of baptisms in the New Testament there is always mention of faith or repentance. For instance, the crowd who listened to Philip preach were baptized, it says, “when they believed” – Acts 8:12.examples of baptismEven when whole households were baptized, the stories indicate that all those baptized expressed faith or repentance.

household baptisms

Clearly an infant or small child cannot hear the gospel, understand it and respond with faith and repentance. People need to be old enough to choose baptism for themselves.

Also, there’s no need to baptize infants or children. As we just saw in v. 14, “to such belongs the kingdom.” Whether they have childhood faith or not, preadolescent children are safe in God’s hands. They are below the age of accountability.

I would also say, that the symbolism of baptism doesn’t fit children. In other words, children are not just small adults. Their life and relationship with God is different.

Adults sin and are culpable before God. And they experience the results of sin – including death. And so they need to repent to enter the kingdom. And this is properly symbolized by the baptismal themes of leaving the world through repentance and being delivered from judgment and death.

But children are already a part of the kingdom. As Jesus said, “to such belongs the kingdom.” And they are below the age of accountability. When they become young adults and know the reality of sin and the consequences of this – yes, then the symbolism fits. Even with those who have experienced childhood faith.

Finally, baptism calls people to make far reaching adult kinds of decisions. Yet, as we saw, children are not able to fully discern and choose between right and wrong for themselves.

I say that baptism has to so with adult decisions because Jesus connects receiving baptism to “observing all that I have commanded you” in Matthew 28:19-20. And following Jesus’ teaching call us to make decisions about our entire life direction from now on. For instance, to love your enemies, to accept persecution, to be sexually pure, to sacrifice your life for the kingdom, and to be accountable to the church in these areas and more. But children lack the necessary frame of reference to understand what these choices would even mean.

We know and understand this in other areas of life. We don’t allow children to choose a marriage partner. We don’t allow children to lock into a career choice. Yet baptism is a much more significant decision than any of these, that affects their lives forever.

Baptism, along with the Lord’s supper is something that they can look forward to when they are ready, as a part of their transition to becoming an adult follower of Jesus.

This brings us back to the question –

How should we minister to children?

Jesus didn’t baptize the children that came to him, as we saw in our story. And there are no examples of children being baptized in the rest of the New Testament. But Jesus did minister to children, and we should follow his example.

We are to give them kindness and attention. This is what Jesus models for us when he allowed the children to come to him. He even affectionately hugged them (v. 16). (This fills in what it means to “receive” children in Mark 9

We are to pray for them and bless them. This is what Jesus models for us. He laid his hands on them and prayed for God’s blessing in their life. And this is why I invite children to come forward when we serve the Lord’s supper. This is the way that Jesus can minister to them, as we receive the bread and cup.

Finally, when we look more broadly at Scripture we are to teach them the way of the LordThis comes from Paul, echoing several Old Testament exhortations. “Fathers . . . bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” – Ephesians 6:4.

And beyond just parents, all of us are to “tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done” – Psalm 78:4. We are to cultivate faith in them as children – and then help them make the transition to an adult faith when the time comes. (2 Timothy 3:14-15)

This is a letter I wrote a colleague in 2007. See also Scriptural teaching on ministry to children

I appreciated your question about the meaning of the phrase – “to such belongs the kingdom of God.” I wanted to say a bit more about what this phrase in Mark 10:14 means and also, more generally look at the central assumption of the presentation, that children are a part of the kingdom. And hey, this gives me an excuse to write out this stuff. I realize that there are some who say that Jesus is speaking somewhat metaphorically here so that they would be hesitant to say that children literally belong to the kingdom. This is my response. I welcome your comments.

In our text Jesus says, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” – Mark 10:14 (par. Matthew 19:14; Luke 18:16)

As I said before the age of the children in this story can be discerned based on two clues:

  • The first clue comes from Luke’s version of this story. He specifically notes that “they were bringing even infants to him” – Luke 18:15.
  • The second clue comes from the word that Jesus uses for “children.” – Based on its use in the New Testament this word refers to children from birth (e.g. Luke 1:59 – 8 days old) to puberty (e.g. Mark 5:39-42 – 12 years old). So the reference here is roughly to any child below 12 or preadolescent children.

Also, it should be noted that Jesus is talking about children in general, not a specific kind of children. The text is generic. Given the age range of paidion – infant to 12 years old, and Luke’s – “even infants,’ it is not talking about children as those who have a childhood faith or understanding. It is simply dealing with children as children, wherever they might be found.

The crucial phrase is “to such (as these) belongs the kingdom.” Who are these “such” ones? The word for “such” is toioutos. Its use is a bit ambiguous. So we have to ask, does toioutos refer:

1) to the literal children as belonging to the kingdom (and other children as well – and also possibly along with them childlike adults – v. 15) or,

2) only adults who are like these children in some way or another (that is, not these literal children but those like these)?

In the former case this teaches that children belong to the kingdom. In the latter case this saying is really not about children or their status with regard to the kingdom. It is about adults.

Those who have dealt with this text and it parallels are split between these two options. I looked at 27 treatments: 15 of them opted for position #1; 12 were ambiguous (I couldn’t tell what their view was!) or outright took up position #2. Often, on both sides, there was little reasoning given for the choice.

Here are the considerations that make me choose option #1:

  1. By the time of the New Testament toioutos was often weakened to mean “this” or “these.” It may well be that Jesus is simply saying “for to these (literal children) belongs the kingdom of God.” (Beasley-Murray – Baptism in the New Testament, p. 327). An example of this interchangeability comes in Jesus’ statement about receiving a child. Mark 9:37 has “whoever receives one such (toioutos) child . . .,” whereas Luke has replaced toioutos with outos (this) – “whoever receives this (outos) child.” For Luke the two words were interchangeable in this case.
  2. When Jesus uses the word toioutos along with paidion (child) in Mark 9:37 it has to do with a literal child – this child or any such child, not someone like this child. (As we just noted Luke makes this point even more clearly). This would certainly condition the reader of Mark in terms of how toioutos is used with paidion (children) a chapter later. If the phrase “one such child” means this child or any such child in Mark 9, then it is likely that the phrase “such as these (children)” means these children and other such children in Mark 10.
  3. Position #2 poses a logical problem. It would indeed be strange to say that group A belongs to the kingdom because they are like group B, but then maintain that group B is not a part of the kingdom. At a minimum “such” would need to include the literal children, the point of reference in this story. It can apparently also include others – “these children and those like them” – other children for sure, but also adults who are childlike (which is what v. 15 picks up). But it doesn’t seem possible to exclude children as the point of reference of this saying. (Ben Witherington, in his Commentary on Matthew 19:14 makes this point with reference to how our key word – toioutos – functions in this verse. He asserts it “cannot simply refer to adults who are childlike to the exclusion of those who are actually young children being brought to Jesus.”)
  4. To maintain that Jesus is speaking of childlike adults to the exclusion of the actual children standing before him makes nonsense of the flow of the narrative. The disciples are being told by Jesus why the children should be allowed to come to him. He says, “for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” To say that the children should be allowed access because childlike adults belong to the kingdom doesn’t make any sense. But it makes perfect sense to say that the children should have access to Jesus – the representative of the kingdom – “because to these children belongs the kingdom of God.” (Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, p. 327).
  5. In the story itself Jesus blesses the children without requiring anything from them. No repentance in relation to the kingdom, no faith from them or their parents. Just as they are – they are blessed. This happens nowhere else in the gospels. This matches well with the idea that Jesus saw them as already belonging to the kingdom.
  6. That children belong to the kingdom matches well with what Jesus teaches about children in Mark 9:37. This says, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (Par. Matthew 18:5; Luke 9:48). Like the disciples, children represent Jesus and the kingdom to others. So when the reader of Mark comes to the next chapter and sees the statement “to such as these belongs the kingdom” this would make perfect sense. Children can represent Jesus and the kingdom precisely because, like the disciples, they are a part of the kingdom – Mark 10:14.
  7. Finally, the idea that children belong to the kingdom makes sense with regard to Jesus’ other statement about children – that adults can learn from them how to enter the kingdom (Mark 10:15; Matthew 18:3-4; Luke 18:17). Children can teach us this because they are a part of the kingdom. If they were not, how could they teach us how to enter?