Mark 10:2-16 (NKJ) … 6 "But from the beginning of the creation, God 'made them male and female.' 7 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 'and the two shall become one flesh'; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 "Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate."
Being a Christian—a believer in Jesus as your Savior—isn’t about doing what’s “allowable,” it’s about the struggle to do what is right. A few weeks ago I spoke with a man whose wife was languishing in the nursing home and he was wrestling with how he was going to pay for her care. One piece of legal advice he got was to divorce his wife. Then, she’d qualify for more social services and government programs; and plus, he’d be able to take care of his own needs. He honestly thought about it; but, in the end, the man just couldn’t do it—he couldn’t divorce his wife. As a believer in Jesus Christ, he recognized that his marriage was more than just a legal contract or a living arrangement; it was a gift of God—to himself as well as his wife.
Sadly, that’s not the attitude of every Christian I’ve ever met. Instead of treating marriage as God’s gift, Satan tempts us to treat it like a curse. He attacks us with all kinds of temptations and accusations designed to change our minds about marriage—to make marriage all about me instead of all about we.
Yet the Lord doesn’t leave us to face Satan’s attacks alone. Our heavenly Father has sent forth His Son Jesus Christ to destroy the devil’s work! And part of Jesus’ work on this earth was to defend His gift of marriage—to defend what marriage is and what marriage does.
I. He defends what marriage is.
First of all, Jesus defends what marriage is. When it came to marriage, the Pharisees were experts in what people were allowed to do. They came to Jesus and asked Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (v. 2).
Jesus understood what this was all about. It was a test; they would judge Him based on how He answered. So, He responded with a question of His own: “What did Moses command you?” (v. 3).
The Pharisees, since they were concerned with what a man was allowed to do, went back to the Mosaic law, to an obscure little section in Deuteronomy 24 where it says that men were permitted to write up a certificate of divorce and send away their wives (v. 4). They legalistically used this little divorce regulation as a way to say, “See, God says divorce is OK.”
And that’s where Jesus jumped in. He defended marriage by pointing out the difference between what’s allowed and what’s right. He told them that this divorce regulation was given to them not because God wanted to legitimize divorce, but “because of the hardness of your heart.” Hard-hearted sinners were going to find ways to get rid of their spouses, with or without a legal means to do so. So, God gave a divorce regulation to Israel to protect abandoned spouses from harm.
Divorce is legal, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. And to prove it Jesus took the Pharisees back to Moses—only this time to the book of Genesis: “But from the beginning, God ‘made them male and female’” (v. 6). God had the gift of marriage in mind already at creation! “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh” (v. 7-8). Jesus defends what marriage is: one man; one woman; joined together by God in a “one flesh” relationship of companionship and fulfillment.
And if that’s what a marriage is—a lifelong union established by God between one man and one woman, Jesus says it this way: “Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (v. 9). Later, Jesus explained it to His disciples: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her” (v. 11). Since God brings people together in marriage, no one has the right to mess with a marriage! If you are in a “one flesh” marriage relationship, and then you decide to get a divorce and marry somebody else, then you have violated that “one-flesh” relationship in the eyes of God. The only time that doesn’t happen is when the other person abandons you or is unfaithful (1 Cor 7:14; Mt 5:32). At that point, the marriage bond is already broken. Obtaining a divorce is just putting down on paper what’s already happened in real life.
II. He defends what marriage does.
Yet why is it this way? Why does Jesus take the institution of marriage so seriously to say that divorce is never God’s plan? Because marriage itself is a gift! And more than that, it’s the kind of gift that keeps on giving! Jesus defends His gift of marriage—by defending what marriage does.
It is no coincidence in Mark’s gospel that Jesus talks about marriage and divorce, and then all of a sudden, we see mothers and fathers bring their little children to Jesus to bless them. We tend to think of marriage in terms of the blessings to husband and wife; but it’s also a blessing to the children who are born from that “one flesh” relationship. In Malachi 2:15, the prophet writes, “But did He not make [husband and wife] one… And why one? He seeks godly offspring.” Jesus defends Christian marriage because children who have both a Christian father and a Christian mother will more likely grow up to be faithful believers themselves.
Jesus says, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God” (v. 15). Jesus’ disciples were keeping the children from seeing Jesus and being blessed by Him. And yet how often does that happen with our own children? You fathers, especially, have a tremendous role to play in permitting your kids to come to Jesus. We know now from long term studies that when both parents come to church, the chances of the children continuing to attend church on a regular basis go way up. But what do you think happens to those kids’ spiritual lives if Dad doesn’t come to church? Or if Mom and Dad break up their marriage? Or if Mom or Dad is unfaithful? Or if Mom and Dad don’t put any effort in at resolving their differences? It can pull the rug right out from under their faith in Jesus!
That’s why it’s so important to follow Jesus in defending marriage, no matter your stage of life. If you’re single and want to be married someday, you can defend marriage by praying for and seeking a God-fearing spouse. And don’t move in with that person before you get married! “A man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife”, not his girlfriend.
If you’re married, you can defend marriage by being the best husband or wife that you can be. Don’t let anyone come between the two of you in your marriage, not even for a minute—not your jobs, not your friends, not your parents, and not even your kids! And if you’re struggling, do everything you can to make it work—learn to get along for the sake of the kids.
You can defend marriage even if you’re divorced! If you were the one that caused the divorce, if you were unfaithful, if you were the one who left, you can repent. You can admit to God that what you did was wrong and seek His grace. And you can honor the “one-flesh” union that He established with you and your spouse, and not remarry. And if you did not cause the divorce, if you were the one who was left behind or cheated on—maybe you just can’t get back together. But you can forgive, and if you have children you can make it your life’s work to let those little ones come to Jesus.
It’s not about what’s allowable, it’s about struggling to do what is right. And marriage and family life—it’s a struggle! And when it gets hard, our sinful nature tells us to start looking for those loopholes, to find permission to do what we want. But that self-centered search takes us to a dark place, where we realize that we don’t deserve the blessings of marriage at all.
Yet think of those children whose parents brought them to Jesus. Those kids were sinners, every last one of them. At some point in their lives, each of those children had done things that were worthy of a spanking. They were born in sin and as they grew, they would continue to sin in new and interesting ways all the way into their adulthood. And what did Jesus do with those sinful kids? “He took them up in His arms, laid His hands on them, and blessed them” (v. 16).
And that is what He’s done for us too. Jesus defends His gift of marriage—ultimately by saving us. Even though we didn’t deserve it, the Son of God embraced and blessed all of humanity by coming into this world. Instead of taking the easy way out and divorcing us for good, Jesus made the difficult, heartbreaking journey to the cross where He laid down His own life to save us. The blood He shed has paid for every broken marriage, paid for every time we sought the easy way out, paid for every time in the hardness of our hearts we cared more for our own happiness than the happiness of our spouse. He has paid for our sins in full. And with that payment, God has taken us sinners up into His arms and declared us to be His children, holy and forgiven! He has put His Holy Spirit into our hearts and given us that simple, childlike faith that takes Him at His Word!
And that’s why we want to do what’s right when it comes to Jesus’ gift of marriage, even if it is a struggle. Because we know that He’s done more than right by us, blessing us far above and beyond what we deserve. With the blessings of marriage and family in this life—but also with the blessings of being part of an even bigger family, a family that will last forever. May that blessing be upon us and upon our children. Amen.
September 20/23, 2018, 18th Sun. after Pentecost
Mark 9:30-37 … 33 Then He came to Capernaum. And when He was in the house He asked them, "What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?" 34 But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest. 35 And He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all."…
Two weeks ago, social media was lit up with pictures and videos of Aaron Rodgers tearing up the Bears’ defense, all with that caption underneath: #12 – the GOAT. It used to be that if you called someone a “goat”, they were a loser. But now when you hear that word “goat” thrown around, especially in the world of sports, it means the exact opposite. The letters “G-O-A-T” now stand for the “Greatest Of All Time”.
Now, to call Aaron Rodgers the greatest of all time—that might be hyperbole. But it tells us something about how the world measures greatness, doesn’t it? You don’t usually see pictures of the building custodian or the school lunch lady with the caption “GOAT”. But titans of enterprise, CEOs, big time entertainers, and athletes—people who have accomplished great things in their lives, when they walk into the room, they instantly have our admiration, don’t they? Everyone wants to be great like them. But is that kind of greatness the kind that is truly important—truly great?
Over the last few weeks we’ve been considering how Christ is our all in all. How He saves us from our sins, how He does all things well, and how He makes us into cross-bearers along with Him. Today we’re reminded that there’s one other thing Christ does for us: He shows us what true greatness is all about. Christ is our all in all; He defines true greatness—greatness (1) in Himself, and greatness (2) in all who follow Him.
1. Christ defines true greatness in Himself.
As Jesus and the disciples passed through Galilee, they could have paraded through all the various towns and gotten all kinds of praise and attention from the crowds that would have shown up to welcome them, but that’s not what Jesus wanted. He didn’t want anyone to know they were passing through Galilee (v. 30).
Instead, Jesus wanted to teach. He wanted His disciples to know about the kind of greatness He would put on display when He got to Jerusalem, how He would be betrayed into the hands of men and be killed, and then after His death, He would rise the third day (v. 31). It would be the greatest of all time—nothing else can compare! He would willingly allow Himself to be betrayed and put to death! And then He would come back to life! And in that feat of dying and rising, Jesus would deliver a whole world of sinners from eternal death in hell!
But the disciples just didn’t understand. Instead of listening carefully and asking Jesus to explain, they went on in willful ignorance, afraid to ask Him what He meant (v. 32). What Jesus was saying about being betrayed and killed was simply beyond their imagination. It was a lot more fun and distracting to argue amongst themselves over which one of them was the greatest (v. 34).
With Christ in our lives and hearts, we are in the presence of divine greatness every day. And yet how often do we play that ignorance card ourselves when it comes to God’s definition of greatness? How often do we pretend not to know the will of God for the sake of telling ourselves that we’re already great, that we don’t need any help? We have this messed up, sinful, self-centered idea of greatness, that greatness is all about what other people—or even God—does for me.
And yet Christ defines true greatness here in Himself. He displayed the greatness of His patient love again and again as He kept teaching His disciples the truth about Himself all the way down to Capernaum. He didn’t blow up at them when they didn’t understand—or didn’t want to understand. He didn’t call them to the carpet with fire and brimstone in front of the whole city for arguing over who was greater. He quietly, privately called them to repent with a simple question (v. 33). Their silence spoke volumes about their guilt. But Jesus’ words spoke even more about His love and forgiveness.
Jesus’ true greatness is found in the patient love that He shows to each of us. In His willingness to teach us the same lesson again and again, no matter how ignorant we might be. Instead of condemning us forever in hell, Jesus quietly in the small voice of His Word calls us to repent and confess our sins. He brings us around to the truth—the truth of our sin, but also the truth of His grace. The truth Jesus made the greatest sacrifice of all time, humbling Himself to be “obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Php 2:6-8). By that greatest sacrifice, Jesus has washed away the stain of our self-centeredness and you and I are forgiven, declared “great”—declared righteous in the sight of God!
2. Christ defines true greatness in all who follow Him.
To look at Jesus is to look at true greatness, the greatness by which He accomplished the greatest thing of all: saving the world from sin and death. Christ defines true greatness—and as He defines that greatness in Himself, He also defines true greatness in all who follow Him.
Jesus sat down and laid it out for His disciples: “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (v. 35). True greatness is the same for Christ’s followers as it is for Christ. It’s the kind of love and humility that makes me “last of all”, that puts everyone else’s needs ahead of my own. It’s the kind of love and humility that desires to serve all people—not only the people I like or the people who can help me get ahead, but to serve even the least among us.
Jesus defines true greatness in us by burning in our minds the image of a little child, a young preschooler, wrapped in Jesus’ loving arms. Jesus said, “Anyone who receives one of these little ones in My name, receives Me” (v. 36-37a). He said it for a reason. Often, it’s children who wind up getting the short end of the stick. When families go through tough times, it’s kids that suffer the most. When Mom and Dad decide to break up their family by getting a divorce, the kids are left to try to pick up the pieces. The world says, kids are a burden, not a blessing. The world says, “Don’t let kids get in the way of your greatness—your happiness.” But Jesus says: You want to be great? Serve a child. Welcome a child in His name.
It’s amazing to see when it happens; and it’s one of the neat things that I see in this church on a regular basis. Not to pat ourselves on the back or anything, but it’s worth pointing out the way that some of you have become adopted parents and grandparents to the children in this church. The way you’re willing to sit with kids during communion, or hold a baby, so that Mom and Dad can go up to the altar. The way you actually talk with kids. And I’ve never seen anyone in this church give the death stare to a mom with a fussy baby—and I pray I never do.
That’s the kind of greatness Jesus is talking about. The kind of greatness that looks forward to Family Bible Hour and enjoys working through the lesson with the kids. The kind of greatness that takes time for the kids in your life—whether it’s your own kids or the neighbor kids. The kind of greatness that takes our responsibility as Christian moms and dads seriously, that is willing to work on our marriages for the sake of the kids. The kind of greatness that remembers what’s most important, that knowing enough to get a good job and have a good life is something—but it’s way more important for our kids to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
That kind of greatness doesn’t look like much in the eyes of the world. But there are promises attached to this greatness. The promise that, “Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me” (v. 37). Whenever Christ’s love prompts us to want to love and serve someone else, even a child, we’re not just serving that child, we’re serving Christ. Jesus says, “You did it to Me” (Mt 25:40). No matter how seemingly small and insignificant, no matter how tainted and flawed, Jesus calls our works of humble service “great”—because they are made great in Him. We have the greatness of being known by God and loved by Him even though we don’t deserve it at all.
Aaron Rodgers may be great at throwing a football, but the real Greatest of All Time is Jesus. The greatest love; the greatest humility; and the greatest glory—true greatness is His alone! And to think, He shares that greatness with us! Amen.
17th Sun. after Pentecost, September 13/16, 2018
… 34 When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, "Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. 35 "For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it.
This week I heard a story about a soldier on a battlefield. The battle is kicking into high gear. The soldier frantically jumps into the trench as the shells start falling all around him. He starts grabbing for something anything to help him out as the explosions rock his position. Suddenly he feels something metal between his fingers. He grabs it and pulls it up: a silver cross. Next thing he knows, someone’s jumping into his trench, an army chaplain. The soldier tells the chaplain, “I’m glad you’re here!” Holding up the cross, he asks him, “How do you work this thing?”
Kind of reminds you of Peter and the rest of Jesus’ disciples here. As Jesus spoke to them and told them about the cross that He would have to bear, they didn’t know what to do with it. They didn’t know how to bear what Jesus was telling them. And yet later on, look what happened. Each and every one of those disciples, with the exception of Judas, all learned to bear the cross of Christ. They all learned what Jesus was getting at when He told them that the Son of Man had to suffer. They didn’t figure it out on their own; it was all the work of Christ for them and in them.
And He did this not just for the Twelve—but for all of His disciples, even us. Christ is our all in all. He is our everything. He is our life and our salvation. And because of that, He makes us cross-bearers in Him.
1. By clearly showing us who He is.
He makes us cross-bearers first by clearly showing us who He is. That is what He did for His disciples that day. On that day, Jesus didn’t mince words; He didn’t speak in parables. He spoke plainly to them about who He was and what He had come to do. As they walked the outskirts of Caesarea Philippi, a city that was the seat of Roman power and might in Palestine, Jesus asked His disciples who everyone else thought He was. They answered with all the ridiculous rumors: “John the Baptist,” they said, “but some say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets” (v. 28).
Then Jesus put the question to His disciples personally: “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered for the entire group when he said, “You are the Christ” (v. 29). From everything they had seen Jesus do and heard Jesus say, they had come to the conclusion that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the one anointed to save all Israel.
But that word, “Christ”, Anointed One, it was a loaded word. For hundreds of years, ever since the kingdom of Judah was hauled off to captivity in Babylon, the Jews had always been ruled by someone else: the Babylonians, the Medes and the Persians, the Greeks, and now the Romans. They’d begun to see the promised Messiah as a political Messiah who would throw off the shackles of outside rulers and restore the kingdom of Israel to her former glory, establishing an earthly kingdom that would last forever. If they thought Jesus was that kind of Christ, they would try to make Him their king—and in doing that, keep Jesus from completing His mission. So, that was why Jesus told them not to tell anyone who He was (v. 30).
And that was also why Jesus went to great trouble to clearly show that He is the Christ—but maybe not the kind of Christ they were expecting. He starts teaching them that “the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (v. 31). The Christ is anointed—not for glory, but for suffering. Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 point to the kind of suffering that the Messiah would face, how His clothes would be divided up before Him, how He would be pierced for our transgressions and carry in Himself all our iniquities. How the punishment that brought us peace with God was upon Him—and by His wounds we are healed. To be the Christ means to be the One who bears the cross.
Frankly, it’s something most people don’t understand: why would the promised Savior of the world choose to suffer? That’s what Peter didn’t get at the time. He took Jesus aside to quiet Him down (v. 32), basically saying, “Don’t worry, Jesus, our Messiah’s not going to suffer; just put it out of your mind.” Human beings naturally connect God only with the good things in life, with success, good health, prosperity, and happiness. People think God’s working in your life only when good things are happening. How many times have you heard someone say, “If God is such a loving and caring God, then why does He allow people to go through a hurricane? Or why does He allow children to starve in Africa? Why does He allow so much suffering in the world?” And the truth is you and I can’t figure it out either. Our problem is often the same as Peter’s.
Remember what Jesus said to him? “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (v. 33). For Peter those words had to sting. But this was how Jesus ultimately made Peter into a cross-bearer—by clearly showing Him who He is.
It’s how He made us cross-bearers too. By His cross, He has clearly shown us who He is, the kind of Savior He is. That He is the promised Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God in human flesh. And at the same time, He has shown Himself to be a Christ who was willing to suffer for us and our salvation. A Christ who hides His glory in weakness and pain. A Christ who wins—not by a flashy battlefield victory, but by laying down His life as a sacrifice for us all.
And knowing that is what makes us cross-bearers in Christ—people who bear the cross of Christ in this world of suffering. We don’t have all the answers. But we know that if Jesus was willing to suffer for us, He’s also willing to be with us in our suffering too. This week was the 9/11 anniversary again—people think about the horrible suffering of that day. Yet one of the most powerful stories of that day was when rescue workers digging through the rubble found six huge steel crosses that had been formed by the collapse. In that moment, all of them stopped to pray. For them it was a reminder that, even in the midst of all the carnage, God was right there with them, working to heal the brokenhearted and binding up their wounds (Ps 147:3). And that’s the comfort we can share when someone we love is hurting. We can bring the cross of Jesus to bear and point to His great love and mercy.
2. By clearly showing us how to follow Him.
And as we carry the cross of Christ in our lives, it changes us. It changes how we look at things; it changes what we do. As our all in all, Christ makes us cross-bearers in Him also by clearly showing us how to follow Him.
Jesus wasn’t finished speaking openly about the cross. After scolding Peter, He gathered the crowd together with His disciples and told them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me” (v. 34). If you want to bear the cross of Christ, then you need to pick up and carry your own cross.
So, what is your cross? Well, your cross is anything that you suffer on account of being a believer in Christ, for bearing Christ’s cross in your life. Sometimes it takes the form of persecution—being ridiculed for actually believing in Jesus! But more often your cross isn’t going to come from outside; it’s going to come from inside. A cross isn’t something that happens to you; it’s a choice that involves following Christ—doing His will. The crosses you carry are inward struggles. It’s the struggle to change the channel on the T.V. when something bad comes on instead of thinking, “Oh, well, this stuff is normal.” It’s the struggle to stand up for what’s right, instead of giving in because “it’s hard” or “It won’t do any good anyway.” The struggle to speak well of your boss—even though your boss is a jerk. The struggle to tell someone about Jesus—even though your mind can come up with 30 reasons not to. It’s the struggle to say no to yourself—and yes to Jesus.
Christ makes us cross-bearers in Him by showing us exactly what following Him is all about. To lift that heavy cross—it’s hard! To bear the cross is to suffer and fail time and time again. We often stumble and fall under the weight of it. And yet, it’s worth it! “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (v. 35). If all you care about is this life, then, well, you can have it—but that’s all you’re going to have. But for those who by faith choose to bear the cross—His cross as well as our own—Jesus makes this promise: Remain faithful to Him unto death, and Jesus says, “I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10). Your life will be saved eternally—not because you suffered, but because He suffered and died for you. You will be saved—not because you carried your cross, but because you’re following in faith the one who carried His cross perfectly to save you. You will rise from the grave and have eternal life—because Jesus Himself died and then rose again, having won your place in God’s eternal family.
That’s the beauty of the cross of Christ. There’s no secret to making it work. It works all on its own to forgive us when we fall, to comfort us in times of grief and suffering, and to give us the hope of everlasting life—all for the sake of the One who bore it. As we carry Christ’s cross in faith, by the Spirit’s power, Christ helps us to carry our own crosses, fighting our battles—leading us to eternal victory. Amen.