The 4 Gospels part 4 – If you were a priest in Jesus’ day…

     In Part 3, Jesus healed a man with a contagious skin disease, but then told the man in Mark 1:44 to “go, show yourself TO THE PRIEST and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing.”

And legally the man was required to do just that. According to the Law of Moses in Leviticus 14 the first thing a man or woman had to do, if he or she believed they weren’t contagious anymore, was to meet with a priest. The priest would then do a thorough examination of the person from head to foot, using Leviticus chapter 13 as a reference, where all the signs and symptoms of skin diseases are listed in great detail.

If the priest could see from Leviticus 13 that the skin disease had ended and the person was no longer contagious, he would then begin the process of cleansing in Leviticus 14 that would restore the man (or woman) back into full fellowship with his or her family and fellow Israelites, and assure them that atonement with God had been made, enabling them to meet with God again at the “Tent of Meeting” where God dwelt (Leviticus 14:11).

But it does seem a bit odd that Jesus would also require all that for a man he’d just completely healed. The man was no longer contagious, so why tell him to show himself to the priests as well? Because, as Jesus himself explained in Mark 1:44, the healed man would be “a testimony TO THEM” – the priests. In other words, it wasn’t for the sake of the man who’d been healed that Jesus sent him to the priests; it was for the sake of the priests themselves.

So, imagine yourself as the priest on duty that day, and in runs this man, still with the disheveled hair and torn clothes required of a person with a contagious skin disease, yelling he’s been healed. So you give the man a thorough check-up, and to your growing amazement, and possibly consternation as well, you find none of the swellings, rashes, boils, spots, sores, ulcers or discolouration of the skin or hair on the sores mentioned in Leviticus 13, meaning the man really has been suddenly and completely healed.

Something extraordinary has happened. The infected man was probably well known too, as would be anybody with a highly contagious skin disease yelling “Unclean, unclean” wherever he went. But here he was, totally free of his infection and, what’s more, it was all due to this new chap, Jesus, who’d been announcing wherever HE went that “the Kingdom of God has arrived; time to repent, therefore, and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).

But it’s how you react to that as a priest that’s so important, because the whole nation looks to you priests for guidance. You’re the shepherds of the sheep, with your ears to the rails picking up all hints and vibrations from God as to what he wants the nation to hear and do, and out of the blue you’re faced with this incredible healing by Jesus, the likes of which you’ve never seen before.

So what DO you do? Well, we never get to find out what you, the priest, might have done, because the man healed of his skin disease did not go to the priests like Jesus told him to, and “Instead,” verse 45, “he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news” of his miraculous healing by Jesus, the “result” of which, unfortunately, was Jesus having to stay away from heavily populated areas for fear of being mobbed.

But what if the man had come to you because, he said, Jesus had sent him? It would certainly get the point across that Jesus wasn’t some sort of maverick doing his own thing and ignoring the system. He wasn’t trying to elevate himself above the priesthood either, or get people to follow him instead. Quite the opposite, in fact: Jesus was honouring the system set up in Leviticus 14, and, what’s more, he was also honouring you as a priest too, because the reason he’d sent the man to you to have you officially confirm the healing was the effect it would have on you.

Jesus wanted to give you priests the chance to grasp what he was up to, and very early on in his ministry too. And what was he hoping you priests would do? He was hoping you’d do what he said everyone should do in Mark 1:15 on realizing the Kingdom of God had arrived: The very next word he mentioned in verse 15 was “Repent.” That’s what he wanted you priests to do.

But what did Jesus mean by repent? Well, judging by the next thing he said in verse 15 about believing the good news, it had to mean repent of being so negative. And that to a priest would certainly carry weight, because the priesthood had a lot to be negative about.

Look at the state of the nation for a start. It was just like the man with the contagious skin disease. Instead of being the great, glorious nation that God had called to rescue the whole world from the ravages of sin, Israel had become a pathetic, backwater nation of Jews being treated like rejects and outcasts by brutal pagan overseers. Which meant, sadly, that nothing had changed since the captivity of you Jews in Babylon five hundred years earlier. It was all bad news.

And who was to blame for that? Well, you priests, of course. It always came down to you priests. Whenever the nation started drifting away from God, and disasters always followed, God sent prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel to place the blame fairly and squarely on the priests and pastors (Jeremiah 10:21, 12:10, 22:22, 23:1, 50:6, and Ezekiel 34:2-10). And here you were again, a nation still in captivity, and this time in your own country.

It was very sad, because the whole nation felt lost and abandoned. You all longed to be close to God and God close to you – like the good old days of David and Solomon – but instead it was like having an infectious disease and being banished from the camp and away from God’s presence, just like the man with the skin disease.

The man with the skin disease, then, perfectly represented the whole nation, because it felt like God was treating you all like outcasts and lepers. The whole nation might as well have ripped its clothes, left its hair disheveled, and cried out “Unclean, unclean,” because it seemed like God was miles away and he wasn’t listening. Every day, year in year out, you Jews had been calling out to God for deliverance and rescue, but he’d never answered.

And as priests you feel so helpless. You’re the ones God holds responsible for the health of the nation – and the nation is sick. But then, all of a sudden, Jesus arrives on the scene crying out, “Repent,” meaning, “Come on, cheer up, God isn’t miles away at all,” and he immediately starts dispensing real cures for people’s sicknesses to prove it. And he does it with compassion too.

And then, to top that off, Jesus tells the man with the skin disease to go to the priests – to help the priests. So instead of condemning you priests for the mess the nation’s in, which Jesus was clearly in his rights to do, he offers you priests the chance to see that something wonderful is happening because of him, in the hope that you’ll believe it, repent of the malaise that’s infected all Israel, and get on board the good news that God has come to the rescue at last.

But what was it about the man healed of his skin disease that would shake you priests out of your slump? Well, let’s lift all this to us now, and what’s happening to us as we read through this incident. Is there a radical picture forming in our heads about God in what Jesus is doing, that shakes us up a bit too? It’s meant to, because that’s what God sent Jesus for. In everything Jesus said and did we see God, and all of it is such radical good news that we repent of all negative thoughts and ideas about God, and WE jump on board the good news too.

And since we’re just as much priests as they were back in Jesus’ day, I think it’s a great idea imagining ourselves in the Temple if the man healed of his skin disease had done what he was told and come to us. And as we stared at the man in amazement, how could we not think, “Wow, God is so compassionate”? That poor man had lived for years as an outcast with his disease, but he goes to Jesus and look what happens. First of all, Jesus reaches out and touches him, then heals him, then sends him to you priests for final cleansing, to show you priests that Leviticus 14 still applies, which is all about God never leaving his people out in the cold and out of his presence forever.

It was just the news the nation needed to hear, because for years now it looked like God HAD left you out in the cold and out of his presence forever. But here was Jesus saying the Kingdom of God was near, God was not far away at all, and to prove it Jesus sent an outcast to you priests to have him cleansed, which would put the man back into full fellowship with God and his family and his fellow Jews. It was the first really strong hint that even though you as a nation had totally messed up, God was bringing you out of the cold at last and bringing you close to him again.

And here was Jesus giving you priests the chance to catch on to that, since you were the ones who had the most influence on people. The big question now was: Would you repent? Faced with all these obvious hints from Jesus that God was fully aware of your demise and he cared, would you priests be the first to repent of doubting God and being all mournful and negative about him? Would you be the first to stand up and start spreading the good news pouring out of Jesus, that God’s back – he’s back in the business of rescuing you and restoring you, just like he did in the first Exodus from Egypt?

Well, what we see happening next in Mark’s gospel is people who DID catch on to that, when a “few days later” in Mark 2:1 Jesus returned to his home in Capernaum and word got out that he’d arrived.

People crammed into every nook and cranny inside the house, and crowded so thickly outside the house that no one could push his way in. That didn’t stop four very determined men carrying their quadriplegic friend on a mat from finding a way in, however. They shinned up the outside staircase to the roof, ripped off the top layer of clay, tore out several tiles and maybe a beam or two as well, and lowered their friend down through the hole to Jesus.

As the mat settled down in front of Jesus in a cloud of dust, the first thing Mark records Jesus saying is: “Son, your sins are forgiven.” It was said, take note, to a man who was completely helpless, again a perfect picture of the state of the entire nation that had been paralyzed into immobility as far as God’s purpose for them was concerned. They were supposed to be the bringers of salvation to the whole world (Isaiah 49:3, 6), but here they were in desperate need of being saved themselves, due especially to the selfishness and greed of their priests and pastors.

And here was a badly crippled man who pictured the helplessness and desperation of the nation perfectly. But he and his four friends had already seen something in Jesus that made them put aside their feelings of helplessness and desperation, put aside their doubts, and put aside all thoughts that maybe God wasn’t interested, or that he didn’t care.

All they could see in Jesus was good news, that in Jesus something amazing was happening and they wanted in on it. And look at Jesus’ reaction: He called the man, “Son,” or “My dear child” in our terms. Either way it was a term loaded with affection, which then stirred Jesus to make the most remarkable announcement that “your sins are forgiven.”

I imagine Jesus said that with great joy: The chance at last to tell the nation that the time of forgiveness had come. It was the perfect setting too – a man totally paralyzed picturing the nation’s helpless state, five men all putting aside their doubts and jumping on board the good news they saw in Jesus, which was exactly what the Father had sent him for. It was a great moment for Jesus, being able through these five men to show people that, despite the horrible mess the whole nation had made of God’s calling, God had forgiven them.

It was a crucial moment, perhaps THE most crucial moment in the history of the world up to this point, because if Israel was forgiven then God’s plan to save the whole world through Israel was back on track.

It was exactly what you Jews had waiting for to, the time predicted back in Isaiah 40:1-2 when God said, “Comfort my people, speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for.” And here was Jesus doing exactly that, speaking tenderly to the paralyzed man as a “son” and telling him his sins were forgiven. And all the sick man and his four friends had done was get a glimpse of what Jesus was all about and believed it. But look at Jesus’ reaction: Immediate affection and forgiveness.

Watching Jesus’ reaction must have been an eye-opener. You mean forgiveness of sins came through simple belief in him? But how many people in that room saw that as the clue to their own forgiveness, and the forgiveness of their entire nation? How many of them attached “the hard service” of this man living in his paralyzed body coming to an end with the hard service they’d ALL suffered as a nation coming to an end as well?

But that’s what Jesus had come for. It wasn’t just to heal people of their individual illnesses and diseases. God had sent him to the lost house of Israel, because Israel was the key to the salvation of the whole world. There’d be no salvation for anyone without Israel, meaning none of us would be here in a Christian church believing our salvation is assured if the sins of Israel had not been forgiven first.

The rescue of Israel from its own sins, therefore, was the crucial first step in God extending his salvation to the whole world – which makes this incident with the quadriplegic so vital. Jesus was offering the whole nation THE clue to salvation. Salvation was all about God’s total forgiveness of sin for nothing more than believing that’s what he’d sent Jesus for.

I doubt those five men knew at the time, though, that their simple belief in Jesus would be the catalyst for Jesus announcing forgiveness for the first time, nor that their story would help people all through the following centuries to understand and grasp the key to salvation, nor that what Jesus was doing was a clear sign that God was getting his plan back on track in Israel, which spelled nothing but good news for them and the whole world.

But that is what Jesus had come for, to show the world in God’s dealings with you Jews first of all, that he lets us go through a period of “hard service” for our sins, but it never means he’s abandoned us. The time comes when he lets us know we are forgiven, so the process of healing can begin.

And how encouraging this can be for all of us, because Israel was the one group of people on the planet who LEAST deserved God’s compassion and forgiveness. He let them suffer, yes, but he never rejected them. Instead he showed them through Jesus how much he loved them despite what they’d done. But that’s why God had sent Jesus in the first place, to reveal what he’s like through everything Jesus said and did. Every thought, reaction and feeling Jesus had reflected the Father perfectly, so that we could all see in Jesus what God is like, which hopefully stirs US to turn to him with the same “rip the tiles off the roof” attitude those four men and their quadriplegic friend had in turning to Jesus for help, realizing in Jesus’ reaction to those men that God deeply loves us for it.

We’ve got these stories in the book of Mark, therefore, to help us see God, that God is all compassion for us as we go through our period of hard service, and he’s all forgiveness and affection when we see in Jesus what he’s all about and we believe it, and believe it enough to rip the tiles off and totally trust ourselves to his care and healing like those five men did.

Unfortunately, for some people in Mark 2 all this meant nothing. Rather than rejoice at the quadriplegic’s sins being forgiven, they accused Jesus of blasphemy, because only God could forgive sins (verses 6-7).

“But what’s easier?” Jesus replies. “Is it telling this man his sins are forgiven or telling him to get up, roll up his mat and go home?” To Jesus either one was just as easy, because God had sent him to the Jews with both healing and forgiveness for them. But it was far more important for this squashed crowd of Jews to hear about forgiveness, because that’s what they needed to hear more than anything, that at last (Isaiah 40) the hard times they’d suffered for their sins were over. God had forgiven them, meaning he was getting them back on track to what he’d called them for, to be his instruments of salvation for the whole world. He was giving them a fresh start.

For a Jew there was no better news than that, that God was cranking up the gears – at that very moment too – to get the salvation ball rolling again through Israel. And to get that point through to the thick, resisting heads in the crowd, Jesus cranked up the gears another notch too, in verse 10, when he told the quadriplegic to get up and go home, because it would show everybody – including the snobby teachers of the law in verse 6 – that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”

What a shocking statement that was, because the teachers of the law would easily recognize who Jesus was referring to by that title, “Son of Man.” It was back there in Daniel 7:13-14 when the “Ancient of Days” gave “one like a son of man authority, glory and sovereign power,” and his “kingdom would never be destroyed.”

By telling that crowd of Jews, therefore, that he was that “son of man” Jesus was saying the never-ending Kingdom Daniel had predicted had begun. The salvation of the world through Israel, therefore, was on the road again. And to convince them that what he’d just said, and implied, was true, Jesus then healed the quadriplegic and sent him off home.

You’d think that would be enough to convince them that God had forgiven them, despite the mess they’d made of his calling. But what Jesus did next was explosive proof of it. Followed by a large crowd Jesus left the beach where he’d been preaching and went straight up to the customs office on the main road to Capernaum, where Levi son of Alphaeus was the officer on duty. Jesus went up to Levi (or Matthew as he’s also known) and spoke just two words to him: “Follow me,” Mark 2:14.

But Matthew was one of the most despised Jews in the nation. He was a tax collector, a flunkey for the Romans, and infamously well known among the Jews for siphoning off a sizable portion of the fees they paid into his own pocket as they went through customs. He was exploiting his office under the Romans to make himself rich at the expense of his fellow Jews.

Jesus, therefore, had just chosen the ultimate “sinner” in Jewish eyes to join him. It was not well received, as we see in verse 15 when Jesus sits down for dinner in Levi’s house with a whole crew of tax collectors and other “sinners,” and the teachers of the law are aghast (verse 16) that Jesus would mix with such people. But how would you feel if you turned up at my house for dinner and the place was full of members of City Council who’d just raised your property taxes by 5% to pay for a raise in their salary?

Why on earth, then, would the Son of Man, the ever-living King of God’s indestructible Kingdom want a louse like Matthew tagging along? Because, Jesus replied in verse 17, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” And if he could heal the mother of all sinners like Matthew then what would they make of that?

What they should have made of it was the mother of all celebrations, because it meant that even the worst of sinners wasn’t a stumbling block to Jesus. He even wanted the likes of Matthew in his company every day. But Matthew would act as a clear example wherever he went that God could forgive the worst of sinners – and love their company, and even invite them onto his team.

It was also noticeable that Jesus didn’t require anything to be on his team other than believing what God had sent him for. You could be the worst sinner in the world, like Matthew, but still be acceptable to God. It was an eye opener, that the priests should have grabbed onto and yelled about, that God had forgiven Israel, despite them being the worst sinners on the planet, and he was fully capable and willing to get them back on side and put them to rights.

This was great news because the Jews had tried so hard to put themselves to rights and it hadn’t worked – witness the Pharisees who tried to get people to obey in every tiny detail, because to them THAT was the key to the nation’s health. But God had allowed several hundred years to pass since the Jews’ return from Babylon, and despite them building a brand new Temple and restoring all the rituals and sacrifices, and despite the priests’ heavy emphasis on keeping the Sabbath, their hard service under pagan rulers had dragged on without relief.

And what that revealed was the Jews’ helplessness. Nothing they did made God answer. And God allowed that to happen for over four hundred years, during which time the nation actually got worse, not better. Many in the priesthood became power hungry and corrupt. Men calling themselves ‘messiahs’ rose up in violent revolution to topple their oppressors. Demon possession and horrible diseases plagued the nation. And people were totally blind to it too, until John the Baptist got people to realize just how bad things had become.

But that was all perfect preparation for Jesus announcing the great news that God was giving them a fresh start and the chance to get back to what he’d called them for, because instead of condemning them for the mess they’d made he showed them compassion. And instead of holding them accountable for their disobedience and weakness, he forgave them. And instead of leaving them in their misery and frustration he came to rescue, heal and restore them.

If you were a priest, then, watching all this unfold, what would you make of it? Well, we ARE priests, so what have we been making of it? Is it helping us repent and believe that everything about God is good news, and nothing but? It’s meant to, because that’s what God sent Jesus for.

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The 4 Gospels part 3 – What does God really want?

In Part 2 Jesus healed a man with a highly contagious skin disease. It was very soon after he began preaching too, so it must have tied in somehow with his message in Mark 1:15 that “The time has come at last – the Kingdom of God has arrived.” But how did it tie in, and what made the healing so significant?

It was certainly significant for a Jew in the 1st century brought up on the Law of Moses, because the Law clearly stated in Numbers 5:1-4 “Command the Israelites to send away from the camp anyone who has an infectious skin disease – send away male and female alike; send them outside the camp so they will not defile their camp where I dwell with them.”

It didn’t matter what your situation was. You could be a parent with five children, or a newlywed, or an elderly Grandma, but if the priest pronounced you ceremonially ‘unclean’ because of your skin disease – examples of which take up most of Leviticus 13 – you had to leave your family, and in line with verses 45-46 you must “wear torn clothes, leave your hair loose and unbrushed, cover the lower part of your face and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean’ for as long as the infection remains. And you must live alone outside the camp.”

And that part of the Law still existed in Jesus’ day. If you as a Jew had a contagious skin disease you couldn’t join in with anything your family was doing, nor could you take part in any meeting or feast day or celebration with the rest of Israel. You were an outcast to be avoided, marginalized and isolated on the fringes of society, just like a contagious Israelite in the wilderness.

The only contact allowed with any human being was a visit with the priest if your infection had ended. When Israel was camped in the wilderness back in Leviticus 14:2, the priest would meet you outside the camp (where you were living) to do a thorough examination (verse 3). If the good news was, yes, you were free of the disease you would now go through a “ceremonial cleansing” like the one mentioned by Jesus in Mark 1:44, when he tells the man healed of his skin disease to go and “show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing.”

Now that’s interesting, because here’s Jesus starting out in his ministry focusing people’s attention on the revolutionary ways of the Kingdom of God, and he includes on this occasion the need to honour the Old Testament cleansing rituals back in Leviticus 14. But the man had been totally healed already, so why would Jesus insist he still go to the priests to have his healing confirmed – and offer the required sacrifices? Curiosity alone, perhaps, would take us back to Leviticus 14 to find out why, but could there also be something in that chapter that beautifully illustrates the revolutionary ways of the Kingdom of God, and that’s why Jesus included it so soon in his ministry?

So before we dive into Mark chapter 2, is there something from Leviticus 14 that needs to be put in place first? The Holy Spirit put it in place at this point in Jesus’ ministry, and clearly for a reason, so what might that reason be?

The man who’d been healed, meanwhile, knew exactly what he was in for if he went to the priests. As a Jew he would have known the process of cleansing required by the Law of Moses. It began in Leviticus 14:4 with the priest ordering “two live, clean birds, some cedar wood, scarlet thread, and hyssop” be brought to him “for the one to be cleansed.”

The priest has one of the two birds killed above a clay pot filled with fresh water. He then dips the tail of the second (still living) bird, along with the cedar and hyssop bound with the scarlet thread, into the water now mixed with the dead bird’s blood, sprinkles the person with the blood/water mix seven times, pronounces the man clean, and releases the live bird, symbolically carrying the man’s sickness away.

But that’s still just the start of the cleansing process. You, the cleansed person, male or female, must now wash all your clothes, shave your head and bathe in water, which allows you to enter the Israelite camp again. For the next seven days, however, you must still live outside the family tent. On the seventh day you then shave off all your hair and eyebrows (and beard if you’re a man), wash all your clothes again, and wash yourself again too.

On the eighth day you then bring two perfect male lambs and a yearling ewe to the priest, along with several pounds of flour mixed with oil and a pint of oil in a separate container, and the priest then places you and your offering “in the presence of God at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting” (10-11). But that’s not the end of it either.

The priest then kills one of the male lambs and offers it as a guilt offering on your behalf along with the pint of oil. He dabs a blob of blood from the dead lamb and a blob of oil from the pint pot onto your right ear lobe, right thumb and right big toe. The remaining oil he places on your head to “make atonement” for you “before the Lord” (12-18).

And still one more step: The priest kills the other male lamb as a sin offering to “make atonement for the one to be cleansed from his uncleanness.” He then kills the third and last sheep, the yearling ewe, for a burnt offering along with the flour mixed with oil, again to “make atonement” for you “before the Lord” (19-20).

So that’s a dead bird and three dead sheep all required for the cleansing of a person who was already no longer contagious. And all you had was a skin disease too, but even after it’s healed it still requires a guilt offering, a sin offering and a burnt offering, along with several ritual washings, the shaving of one’s hair, and the dabbing of blood and oil on earlobe, thumb and big toe. To our ears it may sound a bit strange – and a bit extreme too, perhaps – but there’s no missing what’s really being said here, that a contagious disease is being treated like a sin that needs to be atoned for with ritual and sacrifice.

“Atoned for” in this case meant restoring the person into the safety and delight of God’s closeness again. Without the blood sacrifice and all the cleansing rituals, you would remain outside the camp and away from God’s presence, even if you were no longer contagious. And that would be the worst possible thing to happen to you as an Israelite, to be excluded from all that God was doing in Israel. You’d be no better off than a Gentile, looking in from the outside, unable to join in where the action was really happening.

A contagious disease, therefore, got the point across that sin put you outside the camp, outside God’s presence, and outside the action, and it was only going through the proper cleansing process that put you back in the camp, back into God’s presence, and back into the action where God was working.

To quote one source I read on this subject: ‘God’s presence in the midst of his people could not be taken for granted; it was to be carefully safeguarded. Human beings, living in a sin-tainted world, are not automatically qualified to come into God’s presence and must prepare themselves both ritually and morally before approaching a holy God.’

That’s quite a statement for anyone who’s been infected in some way by this ‘sin-tainted world’. We know Christ’s death has removed the death penalty for that sin, and the sinner – no matter how many or how large his or her sins are – is pronounced ‘clean’ by the death of Christ, just like the person in Leviticus 14 was pronounced clean after one of the two birds was killed.

But it didn’t stop there, did it? Yes, you’ve been told you’re clean, but there’s still a cleansing process to go through to get you back in the camp and back into God’s presence. Christ dying for us declares us clean, yes, but it doesn’t ‘automatically qualify us to come into God’s presence’, as the quote said. A cleansed sinner now has a process to go through, as the quote continues, of ‘preparing himself both ritually and morally before approaching a holy God’.

And the one person in Scripture who truly understood and confirmed that process was King David. When he realized how terribly he’d sinned in sleeping with Bathsheba and having her husband killed, he followed the process exactly of preparing himself ritually and morally to restore the relationship he had with God and the joy and security that closeness with God gave him.

David knew exactly where he stood with God because of his sin. He stood in the same position as the person with a highly contagious skin disease in Leviticus 14. In Psalm 51:7 David even uses the same language we just read in Leviticus 14, when he begs God to “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean.” Hyssop was one of the things in Leviticus 14:4 that you brought to the priest for him to publicly declare you clean of your infectious disease, and that, significantly, is where David’s mind went when he realized how badly he’d sinned: His mind went straight back to the cleansing process in Leviticus 14.

David saw his sin in that context. His sin was like a highly contagious skin disease, requiring a whole process of cleansing to atone for it.

David knew his sin had put him outside the camp and outside the closeness of God’s presence, and it petrified him. We see that in verse 11, when he begs God, “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.” To David the loss of his relationship with God was the worst thing that could happen to him, just like it was the worst thing for an Israelite to be isolated from camp and from God’s presence. But David also knew from Leviticus 14 there was a process in place for restoring his relationship with God.

And the first step in that process was Psalm 51:1, when David cried out to God, ”Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love and your great compassion….”

David knew that despite every horrible thing he’d done God had remained merciful and compassionate toward him through all of it. God had never stopped loving him. And HOW did David know that? Well, in Psalms David said he thought a lot about God’s law, so he would have known about Leviticus 14 and how God dealt with a man with a contagious skin disease, that it was never God’s intent to leave the sick man in his misery. God always had this process in place for contagious people to get them back into camp, fully restored. That was God’s desire. The first thing David did, then, on recognition that he too had been infected horribly by evil, was focus on God’s compassion, mercy and love.

And I realize from this example that this is where I begin with my own sins. But it’s just as important to start here with OTHER people’s sins too. Whatever contagious disease of mind, heart and sprit that people have picked up from this sin-tainted world, God has always loved them. He has always felt compassion for them. He has never stopped being merciful toward them, no matter how infected by evil they have become. It has never been God’s desire to isolate or condemn anyone forever, no matter how sinful he or she is.

Can you see, then, how Jesus healing the man with the skin disease ties in with the good news of the Kingdom of God and the revolutionary ways it promotes? Both the healing and Jesus telling the man to go to the priests took people’s minds straight back to Leviticus 14, and the radical way God dealt with infected people. It was always with compassion and always with an eye to fully restoring them back into the Israelite fold and into God’s presence again.

It gives us in the Church a great starting point in dealing with people infected by the evil in our culture. We start with good news, that God is fully aware of the predicament we’re all in, how evil has infected our minds with all sorts of horrible misconceptions that we pick up without even knowing it, and God really feels for us, knowing what damage was being done to us that we weren’t even aware of. The good news, therefore, is that he’s not sending any of us to hell for what we’ve done; rather, he views us with deep compassion for what hell has already done to us. For a person who begins to see how badly he’s been infected by this evil world, this, then, is what he needs to hear first of all; it’s the good news of God’s understanding and compassion.

This is where David began too, when he saw how badly he’d been infected. What he saw first and foremost was God’s compassion. And that’s what people first saw in Jesus as well, when the man with the skin disease came to him. In Mark 1:41, Jesus, “filled with compassion, reached out his hand to the man and touched him.”

How radical, to publicly express compassion for someone so repulsive. The man was a mess of skin sores, he looked terrible, he smelt awful, and nobody wanted to be near him. But the man had sensed something different about Jesus that made him feel comfortable enough to not only approach Jesus, but make a radical request to him too.

It was the same radical request David made in Psalm 51:1. When David focused on God’s compassion he then felt free to ask God to “blot out my transgressions.” What I believe David meant by that was the same thing the man in Mark 1:40 meant when he asked Jesus to make him clean. He meant get rid of the infection that had caused his miserable sickness and isolation in the first place. Get it out of his body completely and forever.

And that’s what David was after too. He knew God felt deep compassion for him, but would God please now direct his compassion into scouring out David’s brain so that he never got caught out or became infected by that sin ever again.

To have his relationship with God fully restored, which is what David wanted, this wretched sin of his must never get between them again. So David begs God in Psalm 51:2, “Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin” – just like the man with the skin disease begged Jesus to make him clean, meaning totally eradicate his infection so he was free of it forever.

It’s the next step in the cleansing process. The first step is sensing God’s compassion as we wallow in our misery and helplessness. But the next step is grasping God’s willingness to get sin out of our lives forever, pictured in Leviticus 14 by the shaving of hair and eyebrows, and the washing of yourself and all your clothes. It doesn’t fully restore our relationship with God yet, because there’s still an offering of two male lambs and a yearling ewe, along with several pounds of flour mixed with oil and a pint of oil in a separate container to go yet, but it does bring us closer to “the presence of God at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting” (Leviticus 14:10-11). It’s another step in the process of fully restoring our relationship with God, because that’s what God is after too.

And think what that meant to David, who’d allowed his mind to become inflamed at the sight of Bathsheba in her bath. It spread through his brain like a raging hot fever and off he went to get Bathsheba pregnant without a thought in his head as to what God thought. He then tried to hide his sin and guilt by having Bathsheba’s husband killed. And all during Bathsheba’s pregnancy David carried on as if God felt nothing at what he’d done. In time, therefore, David would have drifted away from God entirely into further and further insanity.

But God in his mercy sent Nathan the prophet to stop that descent into madness by asking David why he’d “treated the word of God with such brazen contempt, doing this great evil” in 2 Samuel 12:9 (The Message). Note that God did not hold back one bit in saying how wrong David had been, but note also that God made it personal with David by using the word ‘contempt’. How could David have treated him that way, as if he didn’t even exist in David’s consciousness anymore? And that’s what opened David’s eyes, when he saw what his sin had DONE TO GOD, Psalm 51:4 – “Against you, God, and you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” And David could see why his sin was so evil in God’s sight too, because the way he’d acted it was as if God didn’t exist. Imagine being God, then, whose deepest desire was a close relationship with David, and David just dismissed that all together.

It gives us in the Church a useful question to ask people to help open their eyes today too, the question being: “How do you think GOD feels about what you’ve done?” Make it personal. And why not, when what we’re hoping for is restoring their relationship with God, a relationship that from God’s point of view is highly personal? It certainly woke David up. He suddenly saw his entire life passing before him, that in reality it had been an endless wrecking of his relationship with God ever since he was born. He’d been a “sinner from birth,” Psalm 51:5, because when had he ever really geared his behaviour to how GOD felt about it? And when had it ever crossed David’s mind how difficult it must have been FOR GOD when David treated God so shabbily?

But David also knew that, because God was such a personal God whose sole intent for us is restoring our relationship with him he’d also put this cleansing process in place to “let the bones you have crushed rejoice,” verse 8. Yes, God allows the consequences of evil-infected madness to take their toll on our lives, and on our relationship with him, just like he allowed the Israelites to be infected by skin diseases that had them cast out of the camp and out of his presence – BUT the good news is he’s also provided the means for total restoration.

And that’s where the guilt and sin offerings in Leviticus 14 come in. David didn’t bring literal offerings of sheep, but he brought the equivalent, just as we do, of admitting without excuse what we’ve done to mess up our relationship with God. This became David’s offering, just like it becomes ours, that allows us into “the presence of God at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting” (10-11), and “makes atonement” for us “before the Lord” (12-18). On the admission of our guilt and sin we can rest assured, therefore, that we are properly prepared ritually for approaching a holy God.

But what about the blobs of blood and oil on our right ear lobe, right thumb and right big toe? Well, David went through that process too, when he said in Psalm 51:6, “Surely you desire truth in the inner parts,” and “wisdom in the inmost place.” In Leviticus 14, it was blood on outward bodily parts like ear lobes, thumbs and big toes that made atonement, as if our body was to blame for messing up our relationship with God, but David knew better; it was what was going on inside him that counted, where all these wretched infections came from in the first place.

So this is where the cleansing process took him next, to his plea in verse 10, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” This is the part where David also prepared himself morally. Morally speaking, David knew his relationship with God depended hugely on being utterly sensitive to God’s wishes. But David had failed miserably on that score. Fortunately, though, he knew the next step in the cleansing process, that once he’d fully admitted his sin and guilt and God had “hidden his face” and “blotted” David’s sin out of his mind entirely (verse 9), God would now kick in full bore to “Restore to me the joy of your salvation,” verse 12.

And what greater joy can there be for a human being than the power of the Holy Spirit making us sensitive to God’s wishes, so that this sin-tainted world doesn’t infect us? That’s the ‘salvation’ David’s talking about here, the marvelous “joy and gladness” (8) that comes from having “a willing spirit” toward God (12). It’s such a relief not being negative and angry. But that can only come from God. That’s why David begged God to please not “take your Holy Spirit from me.” David remembered how wonderful it was when his mind was totally focused on God, because the world could chuck its worst at him and he’d always get through it. He’d experienced again and again “the joy of YOUR salvation,” meaning GOD’S constant saving power preventing his mind from getting all twisted up and infected by the stupidity and temptations of a nutty world.

And what great stories that gave David to tell, how he could “teach transgressors YOUR WAYS” (13), the revolutionary ways by which God willingly and lovingly cleans us up and sets us on our way again, that makes it so easy for “sinners to turn back” to God once they understand the process he’s put in place.

David was thrilled when he understood it: “My tongue will sing of your righteousness, my mouth will declare your praise” (14-15). And this is where the last part of the process in Leviticus 14 comes in, the sacrifice of the yearling ewe as a burnt offering.

The purpose of any burnt offering was to restore the relationship between a holy God and a sinful human, enabling a sinful human to come into God’s presence again in total freedom, with no guilt. The smoke from a burnt offering was described as a “soothing aroma” to God (Leviticus 1:9).

The soothing aroma in David’s case didn’t come from a literal burnt offering, because he knew God took no pleasure in sacrifices of any kind, including burnt offerings (verse 16). He knew what sacrifice did please God, though, Psalm 51:17: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart.”

What pleased God wasn’t, as The Message phrases that verse, “Going through the motions,” or putting in a “flawless performance” to make up for what we’ve done; it was simply accepting God’s amazing compassion, mercy and love as the only means by which he saves us and restores us from the infections we pick up from this sin-tainted world that wreck our relationship with him.

And that’s what Jesus demonstrated in Mark 1:44 when he sent the man healed of his skin disease to the priests to have his healing confirmed and go through the cleansing process of Leviticus 14, because in that chapter and the cleansing process it describes is the good news of the Kingdom of God.

It’s the good news of a God who described what he really wants in Leviticus 14, showed it again in the life of King David in Psalm 51, and again through the man healed of his skin disease – that he’s still in the cleansing business, because out the other end of it comes a human beautifully equipped to turn sinners back to God. It gives us in the Church the key to dealing with people infected by the sins of this culture. We don’t condemn them; we start instead with the good news of God’s compassion, because that’s what starts the process rolling of healing what sin has done to them and restoring their relationship with God, so that one day, they too, Leviticus 14:20, can be fully and completely “clean.”

The 4 Gospels part 2 – The revolutionary ways of the Kingdom of God

     Part 1 of the four gospels started with Mark’s gospel because Mark immediately explains why Jesus chose disciples to join him. If we’re looking for a quick reminder from Jesus, then, as to why he also chose US to become his disciples, it’s right here in Mark 1:17. In the simplest of statements Jesus said: “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

Jesus recruited his original disciples to make them into effective recruiters of others. He called them to walk with him and assist him in proving his message was true, that “The time has come at last,” verse 15, “the Kingdom of God has arrived.” And together they’d prove it in such a manner that people would believe it, love it, and be drawn into it. They’d see it as great news. Jesus chose us, therefore, to make us into highly effective recruiters for the revolution he began. And he wants to make us very good at it too.

He gave us some clues right off the bat as to how we become good at it. We become good teachers for a start. People “were amazed at Jesus’ teaching,” verse 22, because he taught with conviction, confidence and passion. He wasn’t like those dry old teachers of the law, who droned on about keeping the law in every tiny detail. There was nothing wrong with teaching the law in great detail, but it wasn’t having much impact, was it, because when John the Baptist came roaring out of the wilderness crying out to people where they needed to change, there was massive repentance as it dawned on people how much they’d fallen short of the law without even knowing they’d done so.

So dry, boring teaching, even when it’s right teaching, doesn’t cut it. It doesn’t move people to act or change. John the Baptist, by contrast, drew hundreds of people to him because of his passionate teaching. But that’s what God had called John for, to wake people up, grab their attention, and lift them out of their stupour. It was John’s job to get these people mentally ready for the arrival of the Kingdom of God and the revolutionary power it contained to move people and change their lives for the better. And for that purpose God made John effective. People couldn’t resist him. They poured out from the surrounding towns and villages to hear him speak.

But that’s what Jesus provides to make us skilled fishers of people, because he means us to have an impact. It certainly had an impact on the evil spirit world, because as soon as Jesus starts teaching and amazing people a demon rudely interrupts him in Mark 1:23-24.

And it’s a real dampener on the atmosphere. The evil spirit is accusing, it’s negative, morose and full of know-it-all arrogance: “I know who you are,” the evil spirit spouts, “you’re that Holy One of God sent to destroy us.” Well, imagine being in the audience and being amazed and inspired by Jesus’ teaching, when suddenly this strident, ugly, negative voice cries out, accusing Jesus that what he’s really there for is to wreck lives, not help them. Thanks a lot, demon; atmosphere destroyed.

But it raised the question in my mind: “Would the demon have cried out that way if Jesus had been droning on about the law?” I doubt it, because there is no record in the gospels of demons interrupting John the Baptist, whose teaching mainly revolved around keeping the law. But as soon as Jesus gets up and starts talking about the Kingdom of God arriving with the power to change people’s lives for the better, and he bangs the lectern in a passionate appeal for people to believe the good news and get on board, that’s when the evil spirit world is stirred to action.

That’s when the opposition begins. Animated, passionate expression of what the Kingdom of God can do for people is when the trumpet call to action begins and the battle lines are drawn. Dry, boring teaching doesn’t do that. The demons yawn with disinterest too. But let loose with a passionate appeal as to what the Kingdom of God can do for you in comparison to the typical teachings of the culture, and the demons are falling off their beds, scrambling for their weapons, and stirring up their disciples to mount a propaganda campaign to stamp out the sparks of interest before they flare into flame.

It was Jesus’ animated teaching that suddenly woke up the demon world to the revolution under way, and they blasted into immediate action to squash it. And they realized very quickly as they heard Jesus teach – and the manner in which he taught – that this was to be a revolution waged and won by teaching. Jesus taught “as one who had authority” (22). “Authority” from the Greek in that verse means power and influence. It meant the ability to move people, to inspire and even amaze them, and that scared the demon world because that’s how revolutions pick up steam, through the inspiring words of skilled teachers.

So when Jesus said he’d make his disciples into fishers of men, capable at recruiting other people into the Kingdom of God, it clearly included the ability to teach. He would supply the mental power and skill to literally “amaze” people, because that’s what revolutions need to gather momentum.

It makes me wish I was young again, with all the energy and enthusiasm of youth, and hearing someone tell me this when I was a teenager, that becoming a disciple of Jesus automatically equips a person with gifts and skills that make the Kingdom of God and what it stands for irresistible to others. What a better revolutionary I might have been. On the other hand, maybe there’s still a bit of that revolutionary tucked away waiting for opportunity, or the realization to dawn more clearly in my head that this is what Jesus intends for all his disciples, to make them into wonderfully effective teachers.

But, a person, might say, I’m not the teacher type. Put me up in front of people and my brain cuts out. It stops working. I can’t even remember the simplest of scriptures or where to find them. I mumble, I stutter, I squeak. And even in a nice friendly one-on-one chat about what I believe, my brain only remembers a good explanation after the conversation is over, or three days later. I’m much happier curling up in the back row where it’s all nice and quiet.

Ah, but, there are OTHER ways of teaching, other than being called upon to speak and explain things, as Jesus is about to demonstrate in Mark 1:40 when “A man with leprosy came to him and begged Jesus on his knees, ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean.’”

As an aside my NIV has a note at the bottom saying, “The Greek word (translated in this verse as ‘leprosy’) was used for various diseases affecting the skin – not necessarily leprosy.” So it may not have been full-blown leprosy this man was suffering from, but some other horribly contagious skin disease. Either way, it still registered the man as ‘ceremonially unclean’.

And that made life very difficult in a nation that was still being governed by the Law of Moses. It was a lonely life because all during the time you were declared unclean by the priesthood you weren’t allowed to come into contact with people, or greet them in the usual way, with a hug, kiss or even touch. If anyone came close you had to cry out, “Unclean, unclean” to warn them away. Your clothes had to be torn and your hair left disheveled as further signs you were contagious and to be avoided.

So think of a person today in that situation, a person our culture prefers to leave on the margins and not have to interact with them. Prisoners in jail come to mind. So do those who return from their war experiences emotionally crippled for life, who are left to rot in their misery in some dingy apartment alone. I think of people with mental disorders too, that so far, even with all our medical advances and leaps of understanding about the human brain, can still only be treated by isolation and chemical sedation. These are the ‘unclean’ of our world, the people on the edges we don’t know what to do with. So we lock them out, or lock them away, to live out their lives without the normal relationships that keep us humans happy and sane.

It was such a man who begged Jesus to make him clean, a man on the margins that nobody wanted around. But how difficult this must’ve been for Jesus’ disciples, because they’d grown up in a culture that legally put these people on the margins. According to the Law of Moses in Leviticus 13 and 14 a man with a highly contagious skin disease was supposed to be steering well clear of people. So how would Jesus react to him?

To the disciples’ great surprise and consternation Jesus, “Filled with compassion,” Mark 1:41, “reached out his hand and touched the man.”

The man probably hadn’t felt a human touch for years. I imagine he leant his head into Jesus’ hand feeling its warmth, and Jesus just melted.

And as you stood there watching (as one of Jesus’ disciples) maybe a picture began to form in your mind, stirred by this amazing scene of Jesus breaking all the rules, his eyes brimming with tears, his hand touching the man’s face, and the man looking up at him with longing and hope, that this too was what the Kingdom of God was all about. It included compassion for the marginalized. It included deliberately reaching out to people on the edges. It included going against the tide of public opinion and cultural prejudice. It included the rather startling realization that the revolution Jesus had just begun only needed the warmth of a human touch to grow, like a hug for someone with AIDS.

So I’ve asked myself, “Could I do what Jesus did?” Could I reach out and touch someone with AIDS, or put an arm round a homosexual’s shoulder, or hold the hand of someone with severe handicaps strapped in a wheelchair? And would I be doing it because I couldn’t help melting with compassion at the sight of them? And could I do it with other people looking on too, like Jesus did? Could I?

Well, I tell myself, I’m not the compassionate type. I’m stuck with this streak in me that can’t help reacting negatively to a man with an effeminate voice, or a man dressed in a woman’s clothing, or people of the same sex holding hands and kissing. I naturally recoil.

To me they’re like the ‘unclean’ of Jesus’ day; they’re on the margins of society, and that’s where they belong so that their influence isn’t contagious. I’m fearful of their contagion, and what it’s doing to people they come in contact with, especially children. So would I welcome a member of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender community to church? I might but I’d be on my guard watching and listening for the slightest hint of them trying to influence people their way, or justifying their sexual and gender aberrations.

But Jesus saw uncleanness differently. He saw how it marginalized people and turned society against them, denying people the warmth of human kindness and normal human relationships. And it touched him deeply when people had been hurt by society’s rejection. And they in turn were moved by his approach to them, because they saw in him someone who cared, and cared enough to welcome actual contact, no matter how bad their illness was.

It was revolutionary in that culture, just as it would be in ours attempting to integrate a pedophile back into society so he can live as normally as possible, rather than be hounded into hiding and fearing for his life. It taught the disciples something vital about the Kingdom of God, that it marginalized and ostracized no one. There was no such thing in the Kingdom of God as ‘out of sight, out of mind’, or even the hint that some people should remain on the edges, forever condemned by society as pariahs and odd.

But did that mean Jesus just accepted everyone as they were? Did he mean to give the impression in touching the man with the horrible skin disease that you just open the church doors and let anyone in, no matter what physical, mental or sexual illness they’ve got, because you don’t want to make anybody feel unwanted or rejected?

Yes, he did, because compassion means just that – your heart goes out to people that society keeps at arm’s length. But, take note, the contagious man didn’t come to Jesus looking for acceptance, he came looking for healing: “If you are willing,” he said to Jesus in Mark 1:40, “you can make me clean.” What this man saw in Jesus was the chance to STOP being on the edges and marginalized.

It was horrible for the man, knowing that people couldn’t accept him. He could have started a campaign to demand acceptance – like marginalized groups do today – but it wouldn’t have worked any better back then than it does today, because no matter how much the marginalized scream ‘discrimination’, or demand that we all ‘celebrate diversity’, there will always be people whose brains cannot accept some behaviours as normal. A man acting, dressing and sounding like a woman, for instance, will forever be considered weird, scary and repulsive to some people. The solution for the man approaching Jesus, then, wasn’t demanding acceptance. What he wanted was healing.

And lo and behold that’s exactly what the Kingdom of God offered, because Jesus’ answer to the man hoping Jesus would want to heal him in Mark 1:41 was, “Of course I’m willing. Be clean.”

What an eye-opener that must’ve been for Jesus’ disciples, that the Kingdom of God was about helping marginalized people to not be marginalized – by healing them of what was causing their marginalization. As a disciple, therefore, you were learning two things about the Kingdom of God from Jesus here: First of all, that nobody fell outside the circle of Jesus’ compassion. He really felt for the marginalized. But secondly, healing was on the books too, the chance to rid oneself of the stigma that society would keep on placing on you – by removing in you what was causing that stigma in the first place. It sounded like a great solution to a problem that both the unchangeable Law of Moses and the natural revulsions in people’s heads could do nothing about.

So let’s ask the question outright: Does the Kingdom of God accept marginalized people? Answer: Yes it does, all of them, no matter how weird or repulsive society thinks they are. But is that all the Kingdom of God is about? No, because acceptance alone doesn’t solve the problem of being marginalized, but healing can. And this is what the man in Mark 1:40 grabbed a hold of. Obviously he much appreciated Jesus’ compassion and willingness to touch him and accept him, but what he really wanted was healing, because he knew what it was like living in a culture that could not and would not accept him in the condition he was in. The stigma of his illness would never go away. People would naturally and understandably avoid him. He would always be marginalized and viewed negatively, therefore, while his problem remained.

Healing, therefore, was what he needed, and he saw in Jesus the chance to get it. And when he asked for it, guess what? In verse 42 he got it.

It was a perfect illustration of a man who saw the Kingdom of God in action in Jesus and he sought what it offered. He literally proved Jesus’ statement in Matthew 6:32-33 that if you seek the Kingdom of God your needs will be taken care of. Well this man sought the Kingdom and the healing it offered, and his need was taken care of.

Can you see how demonstrating the revolutionary ways of the Kingdom of God draws people to it? We may not be the greatest teachers in the world when it comes to speaking in public or explaining our beliefs, but we can become hugely effective teachers in the ways of the Kingdom when we treat the marginalized and rejected in our society like Jesus reacted to the man in Mark. Jesus reacted with compassion and the offer of healing. And he promised he’d equip his disciples with those same desires, because that’s how he draws more people into his Kingdom. Compassion and healing go hand-in-hand. Compassion alone starts the healing process rolling, but Jesus is also offering the power to heal through his disciples too.

So where does that leave us now?

Well, I for one readily admit I’m not the most compassionate creature, and I haven’t really thought much about the impact of compassion on healing the marginalized. Some people just disgust me, and I’m not actually sure I want to see them healed. Could I, for instance, accept a priest who’s abused dozens of children? Could I take his hand if he came to me seeking help and healing? Could I feel compassion for him when he tells me his life has been hell?

No? Well, clearly I haven’t caught on to the revolutionary ways of the Kingdom yet, and how beautifully they work. And there’s no denying they work, because a brief glimpse into Christian history reveals remarkable healings by compassionate disciples of Christ. Wilberforce, for instance, took on the fight to free slaves from their misery, and he won it. Florence Nightingale became the founder of modern nursing in her fight to get proper care for the sick and wounded in war. Livingstone took on the challenge of breaking through the darkness in Africa with the light of the gospel, and he succeeded. Elizabeth Fry fought to improve conditions for women in prisons, and was honoured and supported by royalty. Barnardo transformed the lives of vulnerable children and young people, and when it comes to leprosy, well, Christians have revolutionized the understanding and treatment of lepers. Leprosy, because of Jesus’ disciples living what Jesus started, is no longer the terrible scourge it used to be.

Christian history, therefore, clearly proves that Jesus has never stopped being willing to make people clean. And through his disciples he’s never stopped bringing healing and hope to thousands of outcasts and unfortunates. The evidence is overwhelming that the revolution he began has not slowed down one bit, and it’s having the same impact today in its revolutionary ways as it had on the man with the skin disease in Mark chapter one.

So, do I feel guilty that I haven’t done great things like Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa for those in need? At times, yes, I do, but it’s more accurate to say I’m embarrassed that I didn’t quite understand what Jesus got started, or that it has continued in power and healing ever since. As a Christian and a disciple, therefore, I have underestimated and underused the ability Jesus gives to his disciples to demonstrate his Kingdom and draw people into it.

But at least I understand why. I can see now, after reading this incident in Mark’s gospel, that my view of other people has been heavily tainted by the prejudices and fears of the society I live in, and I haven’t overcome that part of the world yet. I know I shouldn’t be prejudiced or condemning, but a part of me still wants to poke a stick at people I’m revolted by.

On the other hand, I’m not backing down from the fact that what some people do is awful, revolting, and horribly contagious – and it’s not surprising that society fears and avoids them too. But we’re not society. We were called by Jesus to be his disciples demonstrating the revolutionary ways of his Kingdom – AND the power it has to heal.

Evil doesn’t want the power of the Kingdom of God to be seen, of course, so it tries to give us excuse to maintain our prejudices and fears. But Jesus dismissed evil and told it to shut up. And so do we. Not by yelling at it with authority like Jesus did, but by refusing to accept any excuse for treating anyone as a lesser being and undeserving of the power and healing of the Kingdom of God.

Can we, therefore, view people as Jesus viewed them? That people are just sick. What they need, therefore, is a hospital that can comfort them and make them well. And Jesus came to provide exactly that. He came to reverse the damage done to people by evil by creating a hospital for them called ‘the church’.

And the church’s response is the same as Jesus’ response. It says to the sick, “We want to help; let us help you and make you well.”

But what has made that easier for me to accept is that what’s causing things like homosexuality, pedophilia, pornography and any other sexual aberration you care to mention, is nothing more than a contagious illness picked up from others. It’s just like the man in Mark 1 with the highly contagious skin disease. It got started somewhere and he simply picked it up in the same way you pick up any other contagious illness.

And that includes mental illness. It too floats round society lodging in a mind here and a mind there, and some people are more susceptible and vulnerable than others. Evil has managed to create that kind of world, where somehow these illnesses get started and then they become contagious. They spread through society and develop such strength that no treatment can cure them. Such was the problem with leprosy. But there are mental illnesses just as strong and untreatable as leprosy, condemning people to a life of being scoffed at, bullied and marginalized.

But we have the cure. Jesus gives us the warmth of his kindness for mentally sick people, and he gives us his healing touch too, because that’s what he started the revolution and called disciples for. It was to provide a hospital for the sick that would clearly demonstrate the revolutionary purpose of the Kingdom of God to heal the damage caused by evil.

And think what that might stir in the heads of young Christians who understand this, who set out into the career world with this in mind and make huge inroads in the understanding and treatment of mental illness. And by doing so they become witness to Jesus Christ that he was absolutely right when he said the Kingdom of God has arrived and it is great news.

If that’s what they seek, then Jesus will make it possible. That’s what seeking his Kingdom means. It means seeking to promote and live the revolutionary compassion and healing touch that Jesus demonstrated and taught. And that’s how we become highly effective teachers.

Going through the book of Mark, therefore, has helped me grasp that Jesus is still on the job reaching out through his disciples to the people on the edges and making people clean, and since I’m one of his disciples I can be part of that too, BECAUSE, he promised, he would MAKE me into that kind of person. I can think I’m not a teacher or the compassionate type, but Jesus just says, “You’re my disciple, chum, so watch me make you into one – if that’s what you seek too.”

The 4 Gospels part 1 – Why go through the gospels?

Why go through the Gospels? There’s a simple answer to that: Because we are disciples of Jesus too, and he can now teach us through the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John what we are disciples for.

The four gospels were written for disciples, so that disciples of Jesus in any age can follow Jesus and learn from him. We can’t literally follow Jesus on the dusty roads of 1st century Judea, of course, nor can we hear Jesus speaking to us directly – and nor are we Jews living in Galilee in the first century either – but we’ve got the story of how and why Jesus chose disciples in the first place, written down by those who were with him at the time. All disciples in any century, therefore, have a ‘textbook’ to work from to help us clue in to what we are disciples for.

But why did Jesus have disciples in the first place? Well, imagine being Peter and his brother Andrew out in their boat as usual to catch fish one day, and along comes Jesus in Mark 1:17 and from the shore he yells out to them, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Or as The Message phrases it, “Come with me. I’ll make a new kind of fisherman out of you. I’ll show you how to catch men and women instead of perch and bass.”

And not far down the same beach James and his brother John are out in their fishing boat too, mending their nets, and “Right off, Jesus made the same offer (to them as well),” verse 20, and “Immediately, they left their father Zebedee, the boat and the hired hands, and followed.”

Now imagine if Mark had never written this down. We wouldn’t have this picture of Jesus deliberately aiming for this beach, knowing these four men would be there, and calling out to them to come with him because he was going to make something of them they had never envisioned. They thought their lives would be lived out as catchers of fish, going through the same old motions every day of paddling out in their boats, chucking out their nets, hauling in their catch, and selling it at market. But Jesus turns up, and everything changes, because he wants them fishing for people, not fish.

And who is all this meant for? Well, if it’s just an interesting story about how Jesus called his original disciples and it has no purpose other than that, why did Mark bother writing it down and why should we bother reading it? But when you realize that the gospels were written for all Jesus’ disciples in any age, and it’s totally meant for us right now because we’re Jesus’ disciples too, then what might be tucked away in this story for us, as well?

The first thing that struck me was that nothing would have changed in the lives of Peter, Andrew, James and John if Jesus had not come down to the beach that day and called out to them. It’s one of the first things we learn in the gospels, that becoming a disciple is all Jesus’ doing. He chooses us. But that’s what discipleship meant in a 1st century context. It was a highly selective process. You didn’t choose to become a disciple, you were chosen, a point Jesus confirmed in John 15:16 in the choosing of his own disciples, when he said, “You didn’t choose me, remember, I chose you.”

If I’m saying, therefore, that I am a disciple of Christ, I am also saying that Christ chose me, because that’s how it was done in the gospels. Jesus already had his sights on Peter, Andrew, James and John when he headed down to the beach that day. It was all part of a plan – a plan that had actually been hatched a long, long time before that day too, because when speaking of his disciples to his Father in John 17:6, Jesus said, “They were yours in the first place; you gave them to me.” So the Father and Jesus were both involved in who would become disciples. It was the Father’s choice originally, but Jesus was totally tuned to which men the Father had in mind, a point we see later in Luke 6:12-13 when Jesus prayed all night to his Father in the choosing of twelve apostles.

Tucked away in this story of Jesus calling out to four fishermen to follow him, therefore, is the astounding realization that the Father and Jesus specifically chose them. This was no random process. It was in their plan all along that Jesus would have a group of disciples following him, and that both the Father and Jesus would have a very personal hand in who those disciples would be.

And notice the timing too. It was on that day that Jesus took a stroll down to the beach to call out to those men to follow him. Jesus had probably watched them fishing on other days, but this day was the day. This was the time to get these men called and on the way to being disciples. It was all according to plan, not only for Jesus to have disciples on the first place, but also who those disciples would be, and when they would be called to follow him.

And there was no hesitation on the part of the disciples either. Jesus called out to them to follow him, and in Mark 1:18, “They didn’t ask questions. They dropped their nets and followed.” The same thing happened when Jesus called to James and John. When Jesus knew the time had come, “Without delay he called them,” verse 20, “and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.”

Something goes click in a disciple’s head when the day planned for his calling arrives. One minute these four men were happily fishing away, probably not thinking much of anything beyond the immediate need, and then they hear Jesus’ voice from the beach. But they’d been chosen, so that was it; their minds automatically responded, which is enormously encouraging to know, because that’s how it is with disciples. We respond to our Master’s voice when it’s time for us to be called. We can’t help it. It isn’t something we initiate or that we contribute to. It doesn’t require us ‘coming to Jesus’ or ‘giving our hearts to Jesus’. When the time comes for our discipleship to begin, it’s like the day Jesus walked down to the beach to call out to those four fishermen: Something miraculous happens in our heads, and life as we’ve known it changes forever.

And from that point on Jesus does in our lives what his Father designed disciples for. When Jesus called out to Peter, Andrew, James and John, it was the beginning of a process, which Jesus describes in Mark 1:17 as “making a new kind of fisherman out of you.” He’s going to teach them how to fish for people. Jesus does not say, “Come follow me, so you can have a wonderful, personal, intimate relationship with me,” nor does he say, “Come follow me, so you can have all sorts of spiritual manifestations and spiritual experiences to make you feel all warm and fuzzy with God.” A personal relationship with Jesus would exist, oh yes, and they would also experience the Spirit’s power in remarkable ways (oh yes again), but never for some selfish, personal reason. Jesus calls men and women to be his disciples to train them to become excellent and highly effective net catchers of people. It is an entirely unselfish calling.

And the means by which Jesus makes his disciples into effective net catchers of people is rather simple: “Come with me,” Jesus says, “and follow me,” which in the Greek means, “Walk with me and assist me.” It meant join him in what he was doing. Do it with him. They would learn on the job as they did it together. Jesus isn’t the teacher up front with his disciples all sitting in a neat row scribbling notes. He wants them actively involved in everything he’s doing. They’re more like apprentices than students.

And what are Jesus’ disciples to be actively involved in? In the same thing HE was actively involved in when he took over from John the Baptist after John was “put in prison” in Mark 1:14. Jesus immediately “went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.” And the good news contained a two-part message: First of all, it was “Time’s up,” verse 15, “God’s Kingdom is here,” but followed immediately by, “So, people, it’s time for some radical changes in your lives, and some serious belief in how great (and revolutionary) this news is.”

We have to add the word “revolutionary,” because what Jesus was saying was utterly radical at that point in time. It meant throwing everything in your life to the wind and throwing in your lot totally with God instead, because, like a massive alien spaceship approaching Earth, God was on the way to the Earth to set up his Kingdom. So get ready for it by dumping all loyalties to other kingdoms, and joining the revolution.

It was great news, because it meant the Kingdom of Heaven would now be a force to be reckoned with on the Earth, directly challenging the kingdoms of the world under the devil’s rule, exactly as Daniel and other prophets had predicted. This was the amazing time the Jews had so desperately been hoping for – for at least four centuries – and now Jesus was saying it had arrived. The juggernaut was on the move, so believe it and jump on board.

That was the message, and Jesus immediately started recruiting disciples to assist him in getting it across to people. But why choose four ordinary fishermen? What could they do? Well, we see how brilliant Jesus’ choice was, because the sight of fishermen chucking in their jobs to follow him was a perfect illustration of what Jesus was saying about dumping loyalties to all other kingdoms now that God’s Kingdom had arrived.

This comes clear when you realize that all fishermen were basically working for King Herod. Peter, Andrew, James and John, along with all the other fishermen hauling fish out of the Sea of Galilee, couldn’t just throw their nets out any old time they pleased and get all the income from the sale of their fish. It didn’t work like that at all, not while King Herod was in charge, because Herod viewed the Sea of Galilee as his own private pond.

In Herod’s mind he had every right to act like the Caesar in Rome, who claimed every bit of fishable water, ocean and lake, belonged to him, and so did all the fish that came out of those waters too.

To quote from one book I read, Herod “developed his own microcosmic version of Caesar’s claim to own all the oceans and waterways of the realm and everything in them; at every turn, family fishing businesses, like those of Jesus’ disciples, were caught in his conglomerate net, forcing them to procure fishing licenses and leases, to produce demanding quotas, and to pay taxes, tolls, and other fees to an extensive bureaucracy monitoring the whole fishing enterprise, from catching to processing to shipping.” It was all highly regulated in Herod’s favour, because there was a huge demand in the Empire for Galilean fish, and lots of money to be made.

When Jesus called to four fishermen, therefore, to dump everything and follow him, it was a direct slap in the face to Herod. It tied in directly with Jesus’ preaching about God’s Kingdom arriving and jumping on that bandwagon instead, and chucking all loyalties to other kingdoms to the wind. It was the first open hint of what Jesus had come for, and it was political.

On one side of this brewing political storm was Herod, picturing the kingdoms of this world and their rulers, who think everything on this planet belongs to them. As far as Herod was concerned he owned the Sea of Galilee, he owned every fish and clam that came out of it – and he owned the fishermen who fished it. So imagine what life was like for a 1st century fisherman like Peter or Andrew: Your life and livelihood totally depended on the catching and selling of fish, so under Herod’s rule you were stuck. You had to go along with his ridiculous regulations and charges, or else. You were in the system, and you couldn’t escape it. To resist it was financial suicide.

But here were four ordinary fishermen who simply turned their backs on that entire system and walked away from it. And they did it without a moment’s hesitation or thought about themselves and how on earth they were going to survive financially by following Jesus.

It was probably the greatest snub to the pride and power of pagan kingdoms since Daniel and his friends refused to bow down before Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image. But that was the power and purpose of Jesus’ call to those fishermen. It flipped a switch in their heads that enabled them to follow him and not Herod, to illustrate exactly what Jesus meant when he cried out, “The time has come. God’s Kingdom is here, so repent – make a choice which kingdom you’re part of – because the great news is, the clash of kingdoms has begun.” And here were these four men jumping off their boats as wonderful proof of it.

I doubt they had any inkling at the time that jumping off their boats to follow Jesus was clear proof that what Jesus was saying was true, that the revolution had begun, and the age of absolute pagan rule was over. I also doubt they had any idea that the moment they stepped off their boats in response to Jesus’ call Jesus was already fulfilling his promise to make them into a very different kind of fisherman, capable of netting people.

But what did Jesus mean in the first place when he said he would make them into fishers of men? Well, the whole context here is about assisting Jesus in his political revolution, of establishing God’s kingdom on the earth right in the middle of a powerful pagan kingdom with a king like Herod, who ruled every part of people’s lives and demanded absolute obedience. What Jesus meant by “fishers of men,” therefore, was netting people to join the revolution and assist him in establishing the Kingdom of God on Earth. And by jumping off their boats to join Jesus, they became the revolution’s first recruits, who in turn would then be made into effective recruiters of other people for the revolution by Jesus.

When those four men stepped off their boats, therefore, it was the day the revolution began, and the netting of people to join it began in earnest. It’s interesting, then, that the first thing Jesus did after recruiting Peter, Andrew, James and John, was to head off to Capernaum together, “and when the Sabbath came,” Mark 1:21, “Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach.” Jesus wasn’t hanging around; he went straight to the best recruiting spot available, the synagogue, and did a wow of a speech that “amazed” people (verse 22).

But what really amazed the people in that synagogue was the powerful confidence oozing out of Jesus as he spoke (22). He wasn’t like “the teachers of the law,” who spoke only about the Law and how best to keep it in every detail. Jesus talked in much loftier tones, as one who saw a much bigger picture unfolding, who understood the significance of the times they were living in, as though he had an inside track on things.

And isn’t that exactly what we have as Jesus’ disciples today too? We know what’s really going on in this world. Oh, it looks like the world is under the complete control of human rulers and they decide everything – just as it seemed in Judea when King Herod ruled supreme – but we “believe the good news,” as Jesus said in verse 15. We believe God has been actively recruiting and training a steady flow of revolutionaries ever since Jesus arrived, as living proof that HIS Kingdom is here too, because that’s what Jesus got started in the gospels.

The gospels tell us what’s really going on – that first of all, Jesus came to start a revolution; secondly, that he immediately began recruiting people to join him in that revolution; and thirdly, that he set out with his fellow revolutionaries to amaze people with their confidence, authority and power. And all for one purpose and one purpose alone, to prove the Kingdom of God exists on this Earth, by showing what it’s like in direct contrast to the kingdoms of the devil so that more people are caught in the net and join the revolution.

And to further prove that this was now the big picture unfolding in the world, there was immediate opposition from those who were already ruling the world, who didn’t take kindly to their position being threatened. This soon became apparent when an evil spirit interrupted Jesus in Mark 1:23, by yelling out through a man the spirit had gained control over, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”

It’s interesting that the evil spirit said ‘us’, which suggests he’s speaking for the whole demonic realm. So this is a face-off between the kingdom of evil and the Kingdom of God, and it’s happening only moments after Jesus has got the revolution rolling. Clearly, then, the evil realm is worried, and understandably so, because they knew the prophecies in the Old Testament that big things would happen when the Messiah arrived, and now, suddenly, here he was. In what sounds like a mix of panic and aggression the evil spirit yells out to Jesus, “I know who you are; you’re the Holy One of God.” The evil spirit realm was obviously in no doubt that in the person of Jesus the Kingdom of God had arrived.

And we see in the evil spirit’s reaction what that meant as far the evil realm was concerned. Their immediate concern was what Jesus intended to do to them: ”What do you want with us?” the spirit cried, because they knew they were in deep trouble. And in asking Jesus, “Have you come to destroy us?” we see the evil realm actually accepting their lot in life, that with the arrival of the Kingdom of God in the power of God’s Holy One, Jesus could do whatever he liked with them. So when the evil spirit asks, “Have you come to destroy us?” – it is admitting that Jesus can destroy them any time he likes. Is the Holy One of God going to destroy them right away, then, or later?

Can you see what’s happening here? In the evil spirit’s mind it’s already game over. We’re only moments into Jesus’ ministry and the demonic world is already accepting they’ve lost the fight. The revolution that Jesus has only just started with his first four disciples has already been won.

In the great clash of kingdoms begun by Jesus’ arrival, the demons are already saying it’s no contest, because they know who Jesus is. They know exactly what they’re up against in the person of Jesus and they shiver, because they know their time is up and the era of their evil angelic rule is over.

But like a cornered rat the evil spirit comes out fighting, accusing Jesus in front of the whole congregation that the Holy One of God is a heartless killer. Well, Jesus is having none of it and tells the evil spirit to shut up and leave the poor man alone, and to everyone’s amazement (Mark 1:27) the evil spirit does what it’s told, providing living proof in only moments of the revolution starting that the contest between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of evil was over.

So why, then, did Jesus need disciples? If the revolution was already over, and all Jesus had to do was tell a demon to go and it went, like oil scattering from a drop of soap, then why didn’t Jesus capitalize on his power and shut every demon up and establish the Kingdom of God worldwide right away?

Well, that’s what we’re about to find out, because we’re only in the first chapter of Mark, and there are fifteen chapters to go yet, so what’s tucked away in those other fifteen chapters that disciples of Jesus need to know?

Well again, imagine being Jesus’ disciples and watching what happens next. Jesus has just shown, right off the bat, that he has the power to “give orders to evil spirits and they obey him” (27). The focus at this point, then, is on Jesus’ power and authority, which is exactly what the demonic world wanted. They wanted people associating Jesus with chucking his weight around and establishing his Kingdom by violence and destruction. That’s why the evil spirit yelled out, “Have you come to destroy us?” to sneak it into people’s minds that Jesus was your typical pagan bully obsessed with force and violence to get his way, just like King Herod. It’s like someone yelling out, “Help, help; he’s going to kill me,” which isn’t true, but it gets people to side with him.

Again, Jesus is having none of it and tells the demon to shut up, because that isn’t what the Kingdom of God is all about, as we see in what Jesus does next. He immediately heads off to Peter and Andrew’s home where he finds out Peter’s mother-in-law “was in bed with a fever” (30), and without hesitation “he went to her, took her hand and helped her up” (31). And one has to wonder how many great revolutionary leaders started their revolutions like that, with a humble act of love for a little person with a fever.

But it gave Jesus’ disciples their first clue as to how the revolution would be played out. It wasn’t by gathering an army to strike down the forces of evil. The only show of force Jesus had used so far was to shut the demons up from identifying who he was (34), because he knew what people were like; as soon as they cottoned on that he really was the great Holy One of God ushering in God’s Kingdom they’d be diving for their swords and axes to fight and kill.

But that’s not how the revolution would be played out, because Jesus had already made it clear he was fishing for people, not killing them. And he clearly demonstrated that by immediately healing someone, which worked wonderfully, because that evening the whole town turned up with their sick and demon-possessed. It was like fish jumping into a net to be caught.

So this is how you caught people and recruited them. It’s quite simple; the focus isn’t on power it’s on people. And to net people you love them. And you love them by wanting to see them healed from whatever evil has done to them. You don’t condemn them or judge them for being stupid. Instead, you make it obvious, like Jesus did, that you care. And this is the kind of disciple Jesus is making us into so we become effective and skillful recruiters for the revolution he began. People get to see the revolutionary ways of the Kingdom of God being played out in our lives and our circumstances, and they are hooked. They may not know they are hooked but they are, as they pick up on the beauty of unselfishness and begin to live it in their own lives. In other words, they pick up from watching us what Jesus’ disciples picked up from watching him, and that’s how the revolution of God’s Kingdom grows.

That’s why we read the gospels, so that we pick up from Jesus exactly what those original disciples picked up from him. We see through their eyes what Jesus was really all about. He was all about revolution and driving back the forces of darkness with power and authority, oh yes, BUT, take note, it was never by the methods used by the kingdoms of the world. His only weapon was love, but look at the revolution it created: People flocked to Jesus without a weapon in sight.

I have to accept, then, that as Jesus moulds me into his disciple people will be hooked on the beautiful, unselfish ways of the Kingdom of God. Wherever I go I’m part of the revolution Jesus began, revealing the radical difference in God’s Kingdom so that people are caught up in it. Jesus chose us as his disciples for one very simple and totally unselfish purpose: We are nets designed to catch people, so the revolution that Jesus began grows through us too.