THE CHALLENGES OF KNOWING JESUS

 

Week of September 20, 2009

 

Bible Verses:  Mark 6:1-6,45-52; 7:8-9,13.

 

Lesson Focus: This lesson will help you overcome the inevitable challenges of following Jesus.

 

Face Rejection: Mark 6:1-6.

 

[1]  He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. [2]  And 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? [3]  Is 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. [4]  And Jesus said to them, "A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household." [5]  And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them.

[6]  And he marveled because of their unbelief. And he went about among the villages teaching.

 

[1-3]  Jesus left Capernaum and travelled southward into the hill country until He came to the village where He had spent His youth and the early years of His maturity. Jesus returned to Nazareth as would a rabbi, accompanied by His disciples. The reference to the disciples is important, for during this period Jesus had been concerned with their training in preparation for the mission which Mark reports in 6:7-13. On the Sabbath day Jesus attended the synagogue and was given the opportunity to expound the reading from the law and the prophetic portion. The entire congregation was astonished at His teaching, which prompted questions concerning the source of His doctrine and wisdom and of the power which had been exhibited elsewhere in miracles of healing and exorcism. It is possible that the people entertained the same dark suspicions voiced earlier by the Jerusalem scribes that Jesus was possessed by Beelzebub. Jesus had not been schooled in rabbinic fashion but had been trained as a manual laborer. His immediate family were well known to the villagers, who judged that there was nothing extraordinary about them that would have led them to expect something unusual from Jesus. What was the source of His wisdom, and who had empowered Him to speak and act with such authority? To these questions two answers lie close at hand: the source was God, or it was demonic. Their first impressions of astonishment shaded off to resentment when they recalled Jesus' earlier vocation and standing in Nazareth. Not knowing the source of His wisdom, they find His office as a teacher offensive. In spite of what they heard and saw they failed to penetrate the veil of ordinariness which characterized this one who had grown up in the village.

Rather than celebrating Jesus' success, the townspeople are skeptical and attempt to discredit His ministry. They do not refer to Jesus by name but with distance and suspicion, as this man. Moreover, they took offense at Him, they fail to honor Him as a prophet [4], and they exhibit an amazing lack of faith [6]. The skepticism of Nazareth is most evident in verse 3: Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary? In actual practice, calling a person the son of a woman, as the Nazarenes do here, was not normal in Judaism, and was almost certainly insulting. They may even be insinuating that Jesus was illegitimate by not naming His father. They took offense at him. The word for offense means to 'cause to stumble'. The word occurs eight times in Mark and each time designates obstructions that prevent one from coming to faith and following Jesus. A stumbling block to faith is a grace problem. The offense of verse 3 verifies that the amazement of the people in Nazareth is not one of faith but of incredulity and opposition.

 

[4-6] In the face of disbelief and rejection, Jesus quotes a proverb that a prophet is honorable everywhere but at home. The idea and even wording of the saying were not uncommon in antiquity, including both Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts. Jesus thus takes over a piece of wisdom current in His day and applies it to three concentric social circles in Nazareth: to His hometown, relatives, and His own house. Each of the circles becomes more restricted and more personal, extending to His own home. Thus, exposure to Jesus and the gospel is no guarantee of faith. The concluding verses focus on the townspeople's unwillingness to believe. We are again confronted with the mystery of the kingdom of God: some of those who have every opportunity to believe do not, and some who, like the Gerasene demoniac, would never be expected to believe do. No one can predict who will be insiders and outsiders. Marveled because of their unbelief. What amazes God about humanity is not its sinfulness and propensity for evil but its hardness of heart and unwillingness to believe in Him. That is the greatest problem in the world, and herein lies the divine judgment on humanity. Humanity wants a spectacular sign of God, or, like the devil, a great display of divine power [Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13]. But it does not want God to become a human being like one of us [John 1:11]. The people of Nazareth see only a carpenter, only a son of Mary, only another one of the village children who has grown up and returned for a visit. If only God were less ordinary and more unique, then they would believe. The servant image of the Son is too prosaic to garner credulity. God has identified too closely with the world for the world to behold Him, too closely with the town of Nazareth for it to recognize in Jesus the Son of God. Humanity wants something other than what God gives. The greatest obstacle to faith is not the failure of God to act but the unwillingness of the human heart to accept the God who condescends to us in only a carpenter, the son of Mary.

 

Overcome Fear: Mark 6:45-52.

 

[45]  Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. [46]  And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. [47]  And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. [48]  And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, [49]  but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, [50]  for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid." [51]  And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, [52]  for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.  [ESV]

 

[45-46]  The second occasion when Jesus demonstrated His sovereignty over the sea, like the stilling of the storm in 4:35-41, is connected with the Sea of Galilee. The earlier event focused attention on the authority of Jesus' word; here His whole person is involved as He walks across the rough water. On both occasions the disciples fail to understand who Jesus is and experience stark fear and amazement. The abruptness with which Jesus constrained the disciples to return to their boat and directed them to Bethsaida suggests a crisis which is unexplained in Mark's narrative. John 6:14-15 states that the people recognized Jesus as the promised eschatological Prophet and determined to proclaim Him king. The tension of messianic excitement was dangerously in the air after the meal in the desert. The hurried dismissal of the disciples prevented them from adding fuel to the fire by revealing to the people the miraculous character of the evening meal. Jesus remained to pacify and dismiss the unruly crowd. His retreat to the hillside for prayer and the subsequent withdrawal from Galilee are the direct result of the outburst of enthusiasm which followed the feeding of the multitude. Jesus refused to be the warrior-Messiah of popular expectations. This analysis is confirmed when the reference to Jesus in prayer is seen in the context of Mark's structure. The evangelist speaks of Jesus' withdrawal to a solitary place for prayer after the excitement of the Sabbath activity in Capernaum [1:35-39], after the miracle of the loaves [6:45f], and following the Last Supper [14:26-42]. In each case it is night and Jesus finds Himself in a moment of crisis prompted by the enthusiasm of the crowds or the impending passion. On this occasion it was the threat inherent in irresponsible excitement which prompted Jesus to retreat from the people.

 

[47-52]  By the time Jesus had finished praying it was the dark hours before dawn and the disciples were well out to sea. The observation that the boat was on the sea and Jesus was alone on the land seems labored until it is seen as an element in a recurring pattern in Mark. Whenever the master is absent from the disciples, they find themselves in distress. And each time they experience anguish it is because they lack faith. The reason that Jesus came to the disciples across the rough sea about 3 in the morning was that He had seen His disciples exerting themselves against a strong wind which blew presumably from the north or northeast and drove them off their course. The disciples reacted to Jesus' appearance with terror, convinced that they had encountered a water spirit. It was the popular belief of that time that spirits of the night brought disaster. When Jesus perceived the terror of the disciples He allayed their fears and corrected their delusion with a summons to courage. The admonitions to take heart and do not be afraid which introduce and conclude the it is I are an integral part of the divine formula of self-revelation. Jesus assured the disciples with His word and His presence. When he joined them in the boat the wind suddenly died down. The disciples were utterly astonished. They had no categories for understanding Jesus' presence with them in the boat. Mark alone explains that they had failed to understand about the loaves and that their hearts were hardened. The disciples certainly realized that the multitude had been fed with five loaves and two fish, but they had failed to grasp that this event pointed beyond itself to the secret of Jesus' person. Because they were not truly open to the action of God in Jesus, they had missed the significance of the miracle of the loaves for them, and saw only a miracle. That is why they displayed not confidence and joy in Jesus' unexpected presence but faithless panic. Mark's concluding explanation is important in three respects: (1) it indicates that some events in Jesus' ministry are parabolic in that they provide the key to other events. If the disciples had understood the miracle of the loaves they would have recognized Jesus' identity as the sovereign Lord who walks upon the waves of the sea. (2) The problem of understanding is not intellectual, but existential; it is a matter of faith. The disciples did understand Jesus' incidental instructions and they understood that the multitude had been fed. But their confused reaction to Jesus indicates that they failed to recognize that God was acting in history through Him. Their misunderstanding reflects unbelief. (3) The disciples' reaction to Jesus' actions (as well as His teachings) throughout Mark's Gospel is characterized by non-understanding. In tracing this lack of understanding to hardness of heart Mark indicates that at this stage in Jesus' ministry the disciples are not essentially different from His opponents, who also fail to recognize His unique character and exhibit hardness of heart. The proper framework for understanding this unusual episode is provided by the Old Testament. There the power of the Lord over seas and rivers, storms and wind, is repeatedly proclaimed. As the creator of the sea God subdues it and treads upon the waves in demonstration of His majesty. Because He is the Lord men do not need to be afraid no matter how the sea may rage or the wind blow. Jesus' appearance on the Sea of Galilee must be appreciated as a reality and a sign that the living God has come nearer to men in the revelation of the Son. Jesus had no intention of simply passing by His disciples in a display of enigmatic glory as God did with Moses in Exodus 33:22. His walking upon the water proclaimed that the hostility of nature against man must cease with the coming of the Lord, whose concealed majesty is unveiled in the proclamation It is I (in Greek this is identical with God's self-disclosure [I am] to Moses). Jesus' walking on the water to His disciples is a revelation of the glory and compassion that He shares with the Father.

 

Confront Traditionalism: Mark 7:8-9,13.

 

[8]  You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men." [9]  And he said to them, "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! [13]  thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do."  [ESV]

 

[8-9]  The quotation from Isaiah 29:13 rightly defines hypocrite as one who voices lofty and even noble sentiments that are divorced from the intentions of the heart. With regard to the oral tradition, the Pharisees substitute interpretations of the law for the law itself, indeed interpretations at variance with the intent of the law. It would be a mistake to assume that in calling the Pharisees hypocrites Jesus accuses them of lack of dedication. In the judgment of both Jesus and Mark they were gravely mistaken in the course they pursued, but they were not either superficial or uncommitted. On the contrary, it was their commitment to the oral tradition – and Jesus’ equal commitment to recovering the intent of the written law – that made their differences so earnest. In verses 8-9 Jesus sets the oral interpretation in acid contrast to God’s will. The tradition of men is declared your tradition in contrast to the revealed commandments of God or the word of God. The present tense of the verbs in these verses implies that the Pharisees continue to uphold human traditions and continue to reject the commandments of God. The oral tradition is thus exposed and censured as a willful substitution of human contrivance for the word and will of God.

 

[13]  The example of Corban brings Jesus’ critique of the oral tradition to concrete expression. Corban, from the Hebrew word for offering, was a rabbinic custom derived from the practice of devoting particular goods to the Lord. Corban was similar to the concept of deferred giving. Today a person may will property to a charity at their death, though retaining possession over the property and the proceeds accruing from it until then. In the case of Corban, a person could dedicate goods to God and withdraw them from ordinary use, although retaining control over them himself. In the example of verse 11, a son declares his property Corban, which at his death would pass into the possession of the temple. In the meantime, however, the son retains control over the property, and his control deprives his parents of the support that otherwise would have been derived from the property in their old age. Thus the son went through the formality of vowing something to God, not that he may give it to God, but in order to prevent some other person from having it. The practice of Corban resulted in egregious casuistry by annulling a moral commandment of the Torah (honor of parents) by a ritual practice of the oral tradition (Corban). The repeated use of the pronoun you in verses 12-13 reveals that in promoting Corban the rabbis are knowingly perpetrating a moral casuistry. Corban is not simply a bad apple in the barrel, whose removal would salvage the whole lot. Rather, it typifies a comprehensive perversion promoted by the attitudes and methods of the Pharisees and scribes: and many such things you do. The verb do is present tense, signifying that Corban is not an anomaly but standard procedure among Pharisees.

 


Questions for Discussion:

 

1.         How do the people of Jesus' hometown respond to His teaching? Why do they respond in this way? What is the mystery of the kingdom of God? What is the greatest obstacle to faith? When you share the gospel with someone, why do some people believe while others become defensive and reject Jesus?

 

2.         What did the disciples fail to understand in the miracles of the feeding of the five thousand and the walking on the water? Where was their focus? Where should it have been? What three things can we learn from Mark's concluding explanation in 6:51-52?

 

3.         Why did Jesus respond so strongly against the oral traditions of the Pharisees? How do these oral traditions interfere with following the teaching of God's word? Are there any "traditions of men" that you are following in your life?

 

References:

The Gospel According to Mark, James Edwards, Eerdmans.

The Gospel According to Mark, William Lane, Eerdmans.