Throughout my life and ministry I have heard many Christians talk about the importance of prayer in their daily lives. They tell me that prayer is an essential component to their daily routine, that it gives them perspective for the day, that it gives them strength and comfort, that it encourages their soul to know that the sovereign God of Heaven is listening to them when they speak to him. I couldn’t agree with them more, and I imagine you couldn’t either. There is something special about being able to interact with the sovereign, covenanting God while he sits on his everlasting throne and know that he has promised to act according our faith-filled requests. It is a beautiful thing!
Prayer is an act of faith in a powerful God (Mark 11:12-14, 20-26).
After the disciples (at Peter’s leading) noticed the withered fig tree and remarked on it (11:20), the first thing Jesus said to them was, “Have faith in God.” In this short statement, Jesus emphasized the work and power of God above everything else in prayer. The disciples were amazed at the sight of the withered fig tree because the curse Jesus had placed upon it had come true (8:14). It was withered. It was done producing fruit. (I can only imagine what my response would have been.) How could this possibly be? God did it, that’s how! He does the impossible. When we come to him in prayer, we come to the one who has the power to do whatever he chooses, even power to pick up mountains and throw them into the heart of the sea.
Also, by emphasizing the power of God to accomplish great and amazing things, Jesus deemphasized the work or the “measure” of the faith of the prayer. Many people would argue that effective prayer is directly tied to the “measure” of faith the prayer possesses. In other words, the more faith a prayer has, the more faithful God is going to be to answer those prayers in big and powerful ways. Perhaps you’ve heard it said like this, “If you would just have MORE faith, then God would hear your prayers MORE and answer them accordingly.” That’s not what Jesus teaches here or anywhere else. The faithfulness of God to answer the prayers of his people depends upon his grace, goodness, and will. Our encouragement to pray, then, is found in the fact that God has promised these things to us and in our faith in him to do what he has promised. The amount of faith is not the key because it is not the cause of great and awesome things. The cause of those things is the power of God. Therefore, the faith of a mustard seed can uproot and replant a mulberry tree in the sea (Luke 17:6).
Prayer and You
Is your prayer life empowered by this kind of faith — faith in the sovereign, powerful God to do awesome and impossible things according to his grace, goodness, and will? This kind of faith is dependent faith. It is faith that rests in the power and work of God. It is not faith that places the effectiveness of prayer in its own strength. It is faith that recognizes its inability and weakness and trusts in the powerful God of Heaven to do the impossible. This kind of prayer changes lives and will change the world. E.M. Bounds said it this way:
“Men and women are needed whose prayers will give to the world the utmost power of God; who will make His promises to blossom with rich and full results. God is waiting to hear us and challenges us to bring Him to do this thing by our praying.”
The second half of chapter 8 (beginning in verse 27) through chapter 10 are a turning point for Mark as he shifts from a narrative that illustrates and proves Jesus’ ultimate authority to his passion narrative (his final week before his resurrection). In these chapters, Mark clearly explains Jesus’ expectations of discipleship — that is, what he expects from his followers who have answered his call to follow him in faith.
Three Predictions and Instruction
The way he does this is interesting to me. He tells us of three instances in which Jesus predicts his death and resurrection and follows those predictions with Jesus’ instruction about the cost of following him. Accordingly, these chapters can be united under one common theme: Jesus’ disciples are to humbly trust him and live lives in which they put him and others before themselves. I’ll explain briefly.
Demonstrated in the Life of Jesus
These chapters are a microcosm of Mark’s Gospel. For the first 8 chapters Mark tells of Jesus’ authority and power, and in the last 5 chapters he tells of Christ’s willing self-sacrifice on our behalf and his triumphant establishment of his kingdom in his resurrection. Jesus lives these chapters of transition. He is the one who willingly and humbly gives himself for the glory of God; he is the one who trusts his father in heaven completely; he is the one who welcomes the children; he is the one who lives a life in which he puts others before himself. He did it because he loves his father, and he did it because he loves us.
Now, you go and do likewise. Do it because you love him. Do it because he has told you to do it. Do it because he is glorified when you do it. Do it because people see his love for them in your love of him and them.
Mark 8 is strikingly similar to Matthew 16. Actually, the two chapters are basically identical. Mark, however, includes the story of “the feeding of the 4000” and further warning from Jesus to his disciples regarding the Pharisees’ teaching. Since these two chapters are so similar, I decided to reblog my thoughts on Matthew 16. This series of stories of central to the unfolding story of Jesus’ life with his disciples and his call to discipleship. We cannot think on them enough.
The NT365 Experiment: Matthew 16
When I started thinking about “The NT365 Experiment” my goal was to make one observation, one interpretation, and one point of application of each chapter in the New Testament. I have found that to be extremely difficult. Some chapters simply don’t lend themselves to such a simple cyclical format. Matthew 16 is a prime example. It is not possible to think on the text in one cycle of observation, interpretation, and application. It takes three cycles.
Pharisees and The Demand for a Sign (Matt. 16:1-4; Mark 8:11-13)
Observation: The Pharisees and scribes demanded that Jesus give them a sign from heaven in order to trick (test) him. Jesus would give them a sign, the sign of Jonah.
Interpretation: People often demand signs from God in order to test his faithfulness and his goodness. Their goal is not to seek validation of God’s kingdom, but to find a place to trap God, and thus give themselves a way out of submitting to him. God has given us his sign — the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Application: Don’t demand signs from God. Trust the one he has already given you. There is no greater and secure sign of God’s faithfulness than the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
A Rock Solid Confession (Matt. 16:13-20; Mark 27-30)
Observation: Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you think that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said, “Blessed are you Simon… I tell you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”
Interpretation: Every person who follows Jesus must answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” The only proper answer to that question is, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It is upon this confession of faith that Jesus has built his church. Only those who rightly confess, “You are the Christ.” will be allowed in his kingdom.
Application: You have to answer the question for yourself. Can you say in faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God? Have you made that confession of faith?
Costly Discipleship (Matt. 16:21-28; Mark 8:34-9:1)
Observation: Jesus knew that he must suffer many things at the hand of the Pharisees and scribes. He informed his disciples that these sufferings would lead to his eventual death. And, he told them that to be his disciples they would have to be willing to suffer the same thing.
Interpretation: Jesus had to die in order to purchase our salvation. He had to give his life up, and he came to do just that. Our salvation is free to us because he made the costly sacrifice. It isn’t cheap. It cost Jesus his life. And, those who seek to be his disciples must be willing to offer themselves as a sacrifice for his glory. We must be willing to “deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him.”
Application: Are we willing to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him? Are we willing to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of his glory out of love for him and others? In a demonstration of self-sacrifice today, take $10-20 (at least) and give it to someone in need or to a gospel-focused charity as an intentional act of Christ-following discipleship.
Jeremiah 17:9 is one of the most familiar prophecies of Jeremiah. There Jeremiah prophesies, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick…” These words are a part of a larger prophecy against Judah and her sin in which Jeremiah differentiates between a man and his life that trusts in the Lord and one who doesn’t. The preceding verses read, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. he is like a tee planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
Jeremiah’s point is simple: The man who trusts in the Lord has life and bears fruit while living that life even in drought; the man who doesn’t trust the Lord has a deceitful heart and withers away while bearing no good fruit. Jesus takes this same image and applies it to the Scribes and Pharisees (the Religious Leaders) in Mark 7.
Hypocrites and Their Traditions
The Scribes and Pharisees noticed that some of his disciples did not follow the Jewish ceremonial and ritual traditions regarding the washing of hands, utensils, and furniture (7:2-4). They had a problem with this. So, they asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” That was a mistake! Jesus seized this opportunity to rebuke and correct them and to defend his disciples (7:6-23).
The long and short of Jesus’ response is that the scribes and Pharisees were hypocrites, and they were “hypocrites for two reasons: (1) their actions are merely external and do not come from their hearts, which are far from God; and (2) their teachings are not from God but reflect the tradition of men” (ESV Study Bible). Let me briefly explain.
Mere External Actions
Jesus applied Isaiah’s prophetic words about hypocrisy to the scribes and Pharisees of his day (7:6-7). In doing this, he claimed that the scribes and Pharisees were concerned with drawing near to God through external action rather than heart humility. They wanted to please men and God with their external actions, but they were full of deceit and pride. They were not interested in humbly relying upon God. Behavior modification was their way “to get” to God. But, behavior modification without heart change will not work. The real problem is the nature of our hearts before God, not our behaviors. Behavior flows from the heart.
Teachings of Men not God
Because the scribes and Pharisees were so concerned with behavior modification and ensuring that they stood right before God in their actions, they had a tendency to elevate the teachings and traditions of their forefathers to the same place as the teachings of God. What were supposed to be interpretations, applications, and traditions derived from God’s law had become equal to God’s law itself. They had allowed the teachings and traditions of man to usurp those of God.
A Dangerous Position
This is a very dangerous position to be in and to hold. Not only are the traditions of men not the same as God’s Word and therefore useless in cleansing our hearts, they also lead to a disregard of God’s Word. As they replace God’s Word in our hearts and lives, they lead us away from it all together. This is a REAL danger! Confusion abounds in our lives about what is actually required of God and what is not, about what is God’s Word and what is not. We must be careful that we do not follow in the footsteps of the Scribes and Pharisees by confusing the Word of God and the traditions of men and that we do not buy into the notion that external religion is the same as “heart-changing” Christianity.
God reveals himself fully to us in Jesus Christ. “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature,” and the one through whom God has “spoken” to us “in these last days” (Hebrews 1:1-5). This is true not just of Jesus’ words (revealing to us the will of God for salvation) but also of his heart, his character, and his actions. He is the perfect representation of God to us because he is God.
When we read the Gospels, we see this revelation of God in Christ clearly. The stories, the teachings, the interactions, the miracles of Jesus all combine to give us a clear understanding of who God is and the nature of his kingdom. As I read Mark 6, I thought of this revelatory purpose of Jesus and his kingdom as he commissions disciples to go on his behalf, is rejected in Nazareth, feeds the hungry people, walks on water, and heals the sick. But, I took particular interest in the feeding of the 5,000 (6:30-44). I want to make two observations.
“When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd…” (6:34).
Jesus and his disciples had traveled by boat to a desolate place in order to rest, eat leisurely, and decompress after a tumultuous experience taking the gospel into the villages of the region. They wanted to get away. They wanted to spend a little time together. They wanted to get their bearings straight. But, the hordes of people who followed Jesus — who desperately desired something from him — would not allow it. They ran ahead and met Jesus and his disciples as they disembarked on the shore. When Jesus saw them he had compassion on them. He did not turn them away. He gave them what they needed. He saw them as sheep without a shepherd. He ministered grace to them. Though he was tired, though he wanted to spend time alone with his disciples, he took time to care for the people and did not turn them away. He treats you and me the same way.
The Kingdom Illustrated
“And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people…And they all ate and were satisfied” (6:41-42).
In 4:30-32, Mark records a parable that Jesus taught about a mustard seed. He says that they kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds; yet, it grows to be the largest plant in all the garden, so large that it has room enough for all the nests of the birds of the air. The point of the parable is to illustrate the exponential growth of the kingdom of God in the lives of men and women. When Jesus feeds the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish, he illustrates this parable. These few and simple loaves and fish, barely enough for one person after a long day’s journey, became enough to feed 5,000 men and their families with the miraculous touch of Jesus. Jesus uses the smallest and most ordinary things to accomplish his great and extraordinary kingdom purposes.
Compassion and Kingdom Today
The takeaways from this story are simple — Jesus has compassion on all those who come to him, and Jesus does the extraordinary with ordinary things that are dedicated to his kingdom in faith. Seek to find ways to apply these two truths to your life today. Run to and press into the one who is full of compassion and grace. Look for the extraordinary and exponential growth of Christ’s kingdom in your life. Praise God for his work.
Authority is the one word that continually comes to mind as I read the first half of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus has ultimate authority, and Mark demonstrates his authority with the stories he choses and the way in which he records them. The ESV Study Bible notes,
“The first half of Mark’s Gospel is dedicated to the demonstration of Jesus’ authority over sickness, laws of nature, and the demonic world. He also calls, appoints, and sends out his disciples while regularly teaching in a unique and authoritative way” (Note on Mark 1:16-8:26).
Along with this ultimate authority, Jesus has ultimate power, which is “the ability to act, or capability of doing or accomplishing something.” Jesus doesn’t simply have authority over sickness, laws of nature, and the demonic world, he also has the power to control and use them for his purposes.
Mark illustrates this beautifully in three stories that begin at the tail end of chapter 4 and continue through chapter 5. Jesus calms the wind and the waves. He casts out demons from a man in the Garasenes. He healed an unclean woman. And, he brought Jairus’s daughter back to life.
As the Son of God he had the authority to do these things. He is sovereign over all. There is no real argument against that if what Jesus says about himself is true. If he’s God, then he is THE AUTHORITY. There is no adequate or legitimate challenger, for there is only one God. But, he also had the power to enter into the forces of nature and calm them. He had the power to cast out the demons from the man. He had the power to heal a woman who had been sick for 12 years. He had the power to bring a young girl from death to life.
You see, in each of these stories, Jesus had the authority to command. He commanded the wind and waves. He commanded the demons. He commanded the life the of the young girl. And, because of his authority they were bound to listen. That is awesome! What kind of God is this? Isn’t that what the disciples asked while in the boat? “Who then is this that even the wind and the sea obey him” (4:41)?
But, he also had the power to make those things listen and to bring about the change he desired. He said, “Be still.” and they were still. He said, “Come out.” and they came out. He said, “Arise.” and she arose. He had the authority to command it, and he had the power to make it happen.
The Challenge for Me in the 21st Century
If I’m honest with myself (and you), then I have to say that, though I love the fact that Jesus has ultimate power, I struggle with his authority. I want a God who can step into the realms of nature, demons, and brokenness and bring about peace, freedom, healing, restoration. Who doesn’t? I love Jesus’ power. However, I want to direct that power. Don’t you? I want to be the one to determine when, where, how, and in whose life Jesus uses that power. I want to be the authority, and I really don’t want to be subjected to his. But, that’s not how it works. He is the authority and he is the power. That’s a good thing because he is benevolent and omniscient. I’m not. He has the plan to bring about his glory and my ultimate good according to his divine purposes (Romans 8:28). I don’t.
So, my challenge is to submit to his authority in my life as well as rely upon his power. When I’m tempted to broker his power without his authority, I must repent and submit to him in faith. I challenge you to do the same.
Jesus was a teacher, and he did a lot of teaching. He taught his disciples. He taught the crowds that followed him. He taught the Pharisees and the scribes. And, the subject matter he taught was always the same — the kingdom of God. Regardless of his teaching method — parables, direct instruction, interpretation and explanation of the Law, follow up on miracles — he always came back to the glory of God in his kingdom.
Like the other Gospel writers, Mark gives us a variety of accounts in which Jesus did his teaching. One such account is found in chapter 4. It is Mark’s parable chapter. He gives us four parables that deal with and explain the kingdom of God. The first is “the parable of the sower” where a man sows seed and it either grows and bears fruit or doesn’t. The second has to do with a lamp being placed on a stand, not under a basket or bed, so as to shine light on everything in the room. The third parable Jesus tells is “the parable of the seed growing.” The man sows the seed, but yet the earth brings the growth. Though the man does not know how this growth happens, he does not doubt it or question it; rather, he accepts and celebrates it. And, the fourth is a parable in which Jesus illustrates the kingdom of God which begins in a small unnoticed, overlooked way (like a mustard seed) but grows into the greatest and most lasting kingdom the world has or will ever know (like a cedar of Lebanon). There is a lot to learn from these great parables.
By grouping them the way that he did, Mark united the parables under a common theme — kingdom fruitfulness. When the kingdom of God (the active reign of God) is alive and active in the lives of men and women, it produces fruit. It brings about heart change. It brings about life change. It is easily demonstrable in the lives of those who have submitted to Christ and come into his kingdom in faith. There is no exception. When the seed takes root and grows in divinely prepared soil, it grows and produces fruit. Period. The amount of fruit — the measure of the fruit — varies from person to person. In some it produces 30-fold, in others, 60, and in others, 100 (4:8). It’s that simple. Though we may not all produce the same amount of fruit, we produce fruit nonetheless.
Bear Some Fruit Today
I want to challenge you (and I always include myself in these challenges) to bear gospel fruit today. If the gospel has taken root in your life, then you should be bearing kingdom fruit. So, here’s the challenge: