“For he has delivered me from all my troubles, and my eyes have looked in triumph on my foes.” – Psalm 54:7
Sitting in the desert, there is a clear sky above.A circle, elevated, maybe built up a few inchesfrom the sand, rocks, and shrubs, is laid with stone, constructed in the desert, built by the work of Father, Spirit, and Son.The desert is flat andfar from civilization, with sand, dirt, rocks, and shrubs for as far as the eye can see.One stone bench, set in a circle, is on the perimeter of the circular foundation, with a grey stone pillar, a couple feet in diameter, built in the center, a few feet high, with a fire burning atop, so that the fire burns at the same level as the bench.Embers glow hot at the base of the small fire, so hot they would sear and scorch the top of the stone pillar if they were not from God – the burning fire that doesn’t burn.Smoke rises, drifting towards me, as the dry desert kindling is set up in the shape of a teepee above these hot, burning, foundational embers, sending smoke rising through the gaps in the teepee of desert sticks.
Sitting, waiting for Jesus.Knowing that his Spirit is here.Learning how to sit in the Spirit’s presence.
Jesus, deliver me. Jesus, bring my heart your deliverance. Jesus, let me sit in your presence. In the desert, let me breathe in the smoke of your Spirit. Let me breathe deeply your cleansing Spirit. The Spirit that comes forth from the very fire of who you are. Jesus, put the glowing, burning embers – the inner foundations of your holy fire – on my heart. Let it burn my sins away. Let it burn through the hardness of my heart. Put the ember on my tongue, the burning coal you gave to your prophet Isaiah, and let it sear through the pride and arrogance of my actions and words. Let the coal make my heart humble. Jesus, bring healing to my life, the healing of your holiness, your holy, burning coal upon me. Deliver me. Only your love brings lasting deliverance. Give my heart the reality of your love. Make your love more than just knowledge. Make your love a reality for my heart. A bright, fire-ful, burning stone that is placed on my physical heart, piercing it with your powerful love, melting through the shell of my calloused heart, penetrating to the core of my soul, the deepest, most hidden part of my very soul. Pick up the bow you hung in the sky, once again. Take your arrow and make it a weapon of your convicting love. Put the tip in your Spirit’s river of molten fire. Aim it towards me in my fearfulness. And shoot it straight through my heart. I ask you, Jesus, to make your love that kind of reality, imprinting itself upon my soul, eternally, irreversibly. Deliver me from my troubles. Let me live in the triumph of your love.
“Why so downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” – Psalm 42:11
As I pray, I focus on and imagine simply sitting in God’s presence and waiting on Jesus.Prayer is not one-sided.We must focus more on listening to God in prayer, and not so much speaking at God.When we listen, then we can speak to and with Jesus.
As I pray, the Spirit leads me to the desert: a palette mixed with red, brown, tan, and grey, dotted with rocks, shrubs, and brush among the sand and dirt. I go from sitting on a bench on the perimeter of a small stone circle built in the desert, with a fire of dried, windswept kindling resting on a grey stone pillar at the circle’s center, smoke rising, and burning embers at the fire’s base, to the setting of God’s garden. The life-giving tree of God is at its center, with vibrant shades of green and bright colors filling this palette. Breathing deeply, the air is cool, clear, and cleansing. God’s stream of cool, clear, cleansing, and life-giving water flows next to the meadow, overshadowed by the far-reaching shade of God’s tree of life.
The deer drinking from the stream,
the roaring waterfall below; it’s the river of your life, Jesus. Wash me in your water. Let the flood of your waterfall come over me. Let me stand in its water. It is your life, Jesus, flowing through the land, giving nourishment to your land and all your creatures, winding through your plains, mountains, forests, and valleys, flowing peacefully next to your tree of life, teeming with life, vibrant and abundant in every branch and leaf. I rest against its trunk, my back against its bark, my hands in the soft grass, sitting under your shade, the sky blue above, the air cool around me. Give me peace in your life, Jesus. Give me rest. Why should I be downcast, even when life has its pains and sorrows, and the world so full of sin, when I can rest in your land, wash in your waters, drink from your streams, and sit under your tree? As the deer pants for streams of water, my soul longs for you, O God. The deer pants, but finds rest, refreshment, and safety as it drinks from your streams, and so my soul that longs for you also finds refuge in you, Jesus.
Often, the challenge of the church is to not be the High Council, the Pharisee, the Herodian, the Sadducee, or the scribe. It’s not necessarily that anyone who’s a part of a church tries to become like one of these people. No one does. More often than not, attitudes just start to creep into our lives and hearts slowly. Then one day, after months or years, a Christian, whether an average person or leader, has an experience where he or she suddenly wakes up and realizes that they’ve adopted a religious attitude that Jesus taught against.
Just a few days before his crucifixion, Jesus encountered challenge after challenge from these same leaders of Israel. Reading between Mark 11:27 and 12:44, Jesus encountered all of these groups in a single day at the temple, one right after the other. They all confront his authority, seeking to trap him in one way or the other. In his typical way, Jesus wisely outmaneuvers each of the challenges, condemning the overall attitudes and agendas of each group.
The popular accusation that we so often see today is to call someone a Pharisee. “You’re such a Pharisee!” We see legalism, hypocrisy, and turning extra-biblical conclusions into gospel law.
Remember, though, what Jesus taught in Matthew and Luke about logs and specks in our eyes and our neighbors’ eyes? In confronting the spirit of the Pharisees, we need to be aware that we don’t become Pharisees ourselves! Grace, humility, and forgiveness are essential, as well as having an attitude of being willing to walk an extra mile with the other individual, no matter how much we disagree.
But don’t forget about the other groups. The High Council recognized Jesus’ authority, but did not want to really acknowledge it. The Sadducees and Jesus were very opposed theologically. The Herodians allied themselves with the rulers. And the scribes could be self-righteous and manipulative.
While Jesus constantly challenged the Pharisees, he saw the dangers of the others. He called out members of the High Council with the parable of the tenants. He simply told the Sadducees directly that they were very wrong. And he preached publicly about the self-righteousness of the scribes. Jesus warned against pride, arrogance, condescension, and smugness. These are the very attitudes we must also watch out for in our own hearts.
Too often, in challenging the Pharisees of the church, we unintentionally adopt the spirit of the Sadducees or the scribes of the church. Without realizing it, we engage in arguments and conversations that are arrogant or condescending, masked in a falsely humble assumption that we’re simply correct. And even though we appear to be listening to another’s thoughts and opinions, we’re really only giving lip-service to them instead.
The Sadducees, scribes, and other religious leaders might’ve been more intentional in their arrogance. And unfortunately, outright arrogance can be an easy temptation to fall in to today as well.
Be careful though. Because one day you might be arguing with someone who you consider to be the “least of these” qualified to challenge you about Christianity, interpreting scripture, the ins and outs and details of Christian rituals and sacraments, or politics, philosophy, or whatever other situation or field you might be discussing, and it might just be Jesus telling you, like he did with the Sadducees, “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?” and “You are quite wrong.”
Contrasting all those encounters, there is one encouraging conversation that Jesus had that day at the temple that points us in the right direction. Confrontation after confrontation, Jesus goes against religious leaders trying to trap and manipulate him. Finally, though, a lone scribe comes and has a conversation with Jesus, revealing the true point of the kingdom of God: love God with everything that you are, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:28-34). In fact, it’s the scribe who says, “This is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And Jesus replies, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
To love God with everything that you are and to love your neighbor as yourself means setting aside arrogance, condescension, and presuppositions that just assume we’re right because we’re right, even in the often subjective world of theology and the too often political world of the church.
So be humble and be willing to authentically listen and engage with others who think differently than you, even theologically and even if they are in the same theological tradition. Set aside arrogant attitudes masked with false humility. With that, the smell of self-righteousness will disappear as well. Loving God means loving your neighbor, no matter who they are, and that must be done genuinely.
Say no to the attitudes of the Pharisees, but also say no the spirits of the Sadducees and scribes. Be humble, repent, and be willing to forgive and ask forgiveness for these types of attitudes and spirits.
Love God. Therefore, love your neighbor as yourself. These two commands are much more important than any other debate or attitude out there, within Christianity and outside of Christianity.
In the first few chapters of John’s Revelation, Jesus addresses the seven churches: “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write….” “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write….” As well, he asks John to write messages to the churches in Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. In addressing each of these churches individually, he addresses the entire Church – what we need to watch out for, what we must be rebuked about, and what we are doing well on.
Whenever followers of Jesus read these first few chapters, the question hopefully comes up of what Jesus would say to our church today. Would it be an encouraging word? Would it be a rebuke? Would it be a warning?
Since I live in the United States, I often ask, “What would Jesus say to write to the angel of the church in North America?” That’s certainly a loaded, but important, question. I’m sure Jesus would both rebuke and encourage. But I think he would also say that we’re a confused church and that we’re wandering all over the wilderness.
Here’s another way to ask the question: If Jesus was on the way to a meeting of the North American church, and while on the way he saw a fruit tree, would he curse it?
It’s what he did while on the way to the temple.
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. -Mark 11:12-14, NRSV
In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” -Mark 11:20-21, NRSV
Would Jesus actually curse your fig tree?
It seems like a harsh question. It’s a question that many people have a hard time even asking because the idea of Jesus cursing a harmless tree goes against the popular narrative of a culturally hippy Jesus who gives everyone nice feelings of rainbows, butterflies, skittles, sunshine, and unicorns growing in our tummies, and says yes to whatever so long as whatever makes our minds happy and our hearts flutter.
Mark and the other gospels actually tell us a different story of Jesus. Jesus is one who loves unconditionally, forgives, heals, and makes people whole, but also one who challenges authority, debates with a sharp mind, grows impatient and angry, and one who strikes terror into the hearts of disciples and townspeople with his demonstrations of power. The wealthy young man man who came to Jesus even went away grieving, the Pharisees wanted him dead, and the crowds were calling for him to be crucified.
Jesus convicts and asks for hearts to change, and that can be painful.
And, yes, Jesus is also one who curses a helpless fig tree.
When he comes back the next day, it’s withered away, down to the root, and on it’s way to death.
There’s a reason, though, that Jesus curses the tree. Jesus has been known to act out parables before, such as when he healed the blind man in two stages to show that the disciples had not been understanding clearly the first time around. He is doing the same here – bringing a parable and a lesson to life.
The first day in Jerusalem, Jesus entered on a colt, went to the temple, and left. The second day, Jesus passed by the fig tree, cursed it, and went to the temple where he caused mayhem, overthrew tables, and cursed the place. Then he left. The third day, Jesus passed by the fig tree and it was withered away. He went to the temple again where members of the Sanhedrin asked him his authority. He clearly demonstrated his authority when he cursed the fig tree and it withered.
The fig tree represents the temple, the temple system, and everything that went along with it. It’s reasonable to conclude that some of the main reasons for Jesus cursing it were corruption and religious leadership that were leading the people of Israel astray, as well as the possibility that temple ministry that did not allow for gentiles to worship in the way accorded by the law.
Additionally, by Mark’s account, these events occurred only a few days before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. More importantly, with his death and resurrection, the temple system would be obsolete and no longer the place of God. Mark 13 even records this account between Jesus and a disciple:
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” -Mark 13:1-2, NRSV
If the fig tree represents the Jewish religious system of Jesus’ day, what would Jesus say to the fig tree of our modern Christian religious system?
This fig tree grew in the spring. The tree would have been leafy and, if it had any fruit, it wouldn’t have been edible at that time. It would not have grown good fruit until late summer. From a distance, the tree appeared healthy; but when Jesus got to it, the tree either had inedible fruit or no fruit at all.
What kind of fruit is your church growing? What kind of fruit is the church in North America growing?
Have we ended up with inedible crops of self-righteousness that say, “Look at me! Look at us!” Or do our trees produce edible crops of true righteousness from Jesus Christ and the Spirit that point back to God?
Are we more concerned about maintaining systems and fruit that look delicious on the outside, but meanwhile a worm has eaten out the inside, and when we take a bite, the fruit is actually rotten?
Have we become a church that is run either by Pharisees or Sadducees, both pointing fingers at the other, while we miss the point of what it means to be truly like Christ?
Are we a church that is singularly focused on Jesus, allowing him and his Spirit to lead and breathe life into us? Or are we too wrapped up in ourselves and our interpretations of whatever the hot topic is to realize that we are lost, wandering in about 30 different directions all over the forest, and arguing about how to hold the compass?
What is your fig tree like? Would Jesus curse it? Or would Jesus bless it?
I know we all want to Jesus to bless our tree. It’s our gut reaction to say that, of course, Jesus would bless it. And I’m sure there are some that would do all sorts of theological dancing to justify Jesus blessing our various trees, no matter that kind of inedible fruit was growing on them. Obviously no one wants Jesus to curse the tree.
But he did. And he didn’t even ask it to get better. He cursed it. And it withered away, all the way down to its roots.
These are words that need to be reflected on through prayer and time with Jesus and his Spirit. Jesus’ actions here are challenging and convicting, especially for our modern church. It’s a passage in scripture that should be taken seriously by any local church. But especially for the church in North America, this enacted parable can be a hard one to swallow.
The edible, enriching fruit of Jesus Christ is out there. Go after it. In some places, Jesus would bless the fig tree. Unfortunately, though, there are other places where Jesus would walk by the fig tree and say, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”
“For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” -Mark 4:25, NRSV
More than just saying yes to Jesus one time in life, discipleship means giving up everything and following Jesus on the road to the cross as a daily way of life. The accounts in Mark 10 of the unnamed wealthy man and the blind beggar, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, illustrate discipleship in a very real way.
The two accounts parallel one another, comparing and contrasting true discipleship. Bringing out the contrast even more, these two passages are separated by Jesus describing the difficult road of what it means to follow him, and the disciples again demonstrating their lack of understanding.
Let’s take a look:
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. -Mark 10:17-22, NRSV
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.”Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. -Mark 10:46-52, NRSV
The wealthy man runs towards Jesus, kneels before him, and calls him good. Ben-Hur comes to mind; this wealthy man could even have been the inspiration for the story. But clearly, whoever this man is, he loves Jesus! A rich man who runs and kneels, humbling himself before his teacher whom he recognizes as divine – that’s not something that’s common for wealthy, respectable people. Jesus clearly loves this man as well. He doesn’t mock his question, but takes him seriously. Moreover, people believed that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing and favor; so by everyone’s opinion and by the looks of things, here was a man who was on his way to the kingdom of God. But things aren’t always what they seem.
Jesus challenges him, though, cutting to the core of the issue. His wealth is actually holding him back. It is the one thing he is not yet ready to give up in order to follow Jesus.
I’m not saying this is the case for anyone who owns anything; Peter owned a home where Jesus and the disciples stayed in Capernaum, and several of the disciples had successful businesses as fishermen, and continued in that trade to support themselves. But regardless of one’s wealth or poverty, one must be ready and willing to give up whatever one does have for the sake of Jesus.
In Mark 8, Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
In a recent Bible study I lead, a participant pointed out that we don’t actually know what happened to the wealthy man. It’s an important point. Perhaps he decided not to give up his wealth in order to follow the teacher he loved, or perhaps, after a period of time, he did decide to give it all up for the sake of Jesus. Jesus gave him a surprising message; sometimes those types of messages take a while to sink in. It can be a process for our minds to grasp God’s truth and for our hearts to experience transformation. If the man was anything like the story of Judah Ben-Hur, then perhaps he did change after all. But here, in this passage, Mark focuses on what is holding him back from the kingdom.
Meanwhile, Bartimaeus, a poor blind beggar on the side of the road, calls out to Jesus despite the voices of the crowd trying to pressure him into silence. And even when Jesus calls him, asking him what he wants, this poor man with hardly any possessions casts off his cloak! Even before his vision is healed, Bartimaeus throws off his one important material possession. Jesus heals him and he sees clearly, following Jesus on his final journey to Jerusalem where he will ultimately be killed. Whereas the wealthy man, and even James and John and the other disciples, do not see clearly, Bartimaeus does. Bartimaeus is someone who demonstrates what it means to follow Jesus.
Bartimaeus, a name meaning son of Timaeus, and also meaning son of honor, shows true discipleship. Mark redundantly writes, “Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus,” doubly emphasizing this poor beggar’s honor before Jesus Christ. Bartimaeus also calls out to Jesus in recognition, “Jesus, son of David!” The name Jesus comes from the name Joshua, meaning deliverer and savior, and son of David reflects the idea of Messiah. Bartimaeus essentially calls out, “Savior, savior!”, throws off his cloak, and jumps up to go to Jesus. The poor blind beggar, who shows what discipleship means, is recognized with great honor.
The wealthy man runs to Jesus and is not pushed away by the crowd. The blind beggar calls to Jesus but the crowd tells him to be quiet, but he persists even more. Both the wealthy man and the blind beggar recognize who Jesus is, but Bartimaeus calls out in desperation and insists on encountering him. The wealthy man has all the possessions he could want, but does not want to sell them and give to the poor – that we know of – and we can hope that the wealthy man ultimately did what Jesus asks. The blind beggar barely has anything, and the cloak that he has, he casts off when he jumps up to Jesus. Finally, the wealthy man goes away grieving, but the blind beggar is healed and given the place of honor, sees clearly, and follows Jesus to Jerusalem, where Jesus will be killed.
Jesus deeply loves all people and desires everyone, regardless of wealth or poverty, to seek after him. But it is much more than simply saying yes to Jesus, recognizing Jesus, or even liking Jesus. Being a disciple of Jesus means Bartimaeus’ example, calling out to him desperately and consistently, being willing to give up everything even when we barely have anything, and following Jesus on the road to the cross. In that, a disciple will become a son or daughter of honor, and his or her eyes will open even more, seeing clearly what following Jesus truly means.
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about the need for church communities to embrace new wineskins. In a post-Christendom age that has many similarities to the pre-Christendom age before Constantine, many of our churches are operating in a traditional Christendom-era format. Therefore, we must critically re-examine and look at the powerful, Spirit-filled, and world-changing early Church communities and see how we can shape and drastically simplify our own church communities in a way that reflects this early Church. In the church community my wife and I are a part of at Meeting House Ministries, this is what the community is striving for.
For many churches and denominations with a traditional, centralized, hierarchical, and institutional ecclesiology and format, these types of changes can be an uncomfortable step of faith. However, the Church is ultimately the people of God, and not necessarily how God’s people are organized into structures. The Spirit has filled God’s people. Therefore, as church communities filled with God’s people, we must disciple and model to one another and the world around us the power and love of Jesus Christ, unleashing the supernatural power and love of the Spirit on the world in a way the world hasn’t seen since the early Church exploded.
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to teach two sessions at the Philadelphia District Church of the Nazarene Momentum discipleship conference, discussing what these new wineskins might look like. I’ve attached my outline and handout below, with ideas and examples included. Please take a look and feel free to utilize and incorporate these ideas in your own church communities, and if you have any questions, please contact me.