The Great Banquet

“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. “Truly I tell you, I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:24-25).

The last line is a puzzling one.  Both Matthew and Mark mention it.  It contains both a vow and a promise.  The abstention from wine might not seem like much of a vow for many of us.  We have other alternatives.  But given that wine was the staple drink of the ancient world, refusing it would be tantamount to not drinking anything!  It was a serious vow.  But what does it mean?

There are two ways to look at this promise:

First, it was an assurance that the arrival of the Kingdom of God was imminent.  Jesus would soon rise from the dead, ascend to the father, and take his place at the right hand of God, ruling over all authority, power, and dominion.  The Church, where that rule would be seen on the earth, would be established and God’s people would gather regularly to fellowship with Christ in the Lord’s Supper.

But second, perhaps something more future also is involved.  Isaiah had promised a glorious banquet in the presence of the Lord (25:6-9).  This promise was mentioned several times by Jesus and connected to the Kingdom of God at the end of time (see Matthew 22).  John refers to it in Revelation 19 as the “wedding supper of the lamb.”  The promise not to drink wine until he drinks it with us looks forward to that day when we will eat and drink together with Jesus, in His presence, at the end of the time.  The vow Jesus takes here is our assurance it will happen.  The Lord’s Supper is a weekly reminder that something greater is coming.

In Agreement With God

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:22-24).

In the ancient world, serious agreements (covenants) were sealed by slaughtering animals and cutting them in half.  Participants in the agreement walked between the halves and then burned them in sacrifice (see Jeremiah 34:17-20).  The notion was: “If we do not fulfill our part of this agreement, may we become as this animal.”

Whenever I read this passage in Mark 14, I am reminded of a story in Genesis 15.  There, in a crisis of faith, Abraham asks how he can believe God will make good on his promises.  God has him to prepare several animals for sacrifice, cutting them in half.  But Abraham is not asked to walk between them.  Instead, God, in a flame of fire, passes between them and burns them up in sacrifice.  The point is this: God is making a covenant with Abraham, a covenant guaranteed solely by God and his wholly by His being.

When we become God’s children, we enter into an agreement with God, an agreement so serious it is guaranteed by the sacrifice of God Himself – signified by the blood of Jesus.  This event in Mark 14 is Christ’s initiation of the Lord’s Supper.  Our observance of that Supper each week  is a reminder not only of Christ’s death, but also of His covenant with us and the promises of that covenant.  It is also a reminder that those promises, so integral to the covenant, are guaranteed by the life of God himself.

Sharing in Christ’s Life

Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them (Mark 14:23).

Ages before, God had said “I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats blood, and I will cut them off from the people” (Leviticus 17:10). Keep in mind that the statement “cut them off from the people” implied a death sentence – likely to be carried out by God Himself.

In the Old Testament, life was bound up in blood (Leviticus 17:11). It was too precious to be used as food. If it was used at all, it was to be offered to God for forgiveness of sins, but never to be consumed by humans. So imagine how horrified the disciples must have been when Jesus passed around his cup of wine, had his disciples drink from it, and then told them: “This is my blood.”

Christ’s blood was certainly an atonement offering – his ransom price for our sin. But his life was also the life of God. To drink the blood of Christ was to share in his life and destiny. His life is the only life worth sharing so intimately, and the life of Christ is the only life worth emulating (John 6:53ff).

In the Lord’s Supper, we remember not just that Jesus died, or that he died for us, or even that he died so we might find forgiveness. It is also a reminder that we have voluntarily decided to share in his life. While we affirm this decision in observing the Lord’s Supper, to be true, it must be seen in the way we live each day.

The Real . . . and the Phoney

“At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and miracles to deceive the elect—if that were possible. So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time” (Mark 13:21-23).

In Jesus’ temple speech he warns against the deceptions of “false Christs.” They too will perform signs and miracles and “deceive the elect.” But how were Jesus’ hearers (more importantly, how are we) supposed to tell the difference? If both performed miracles, how will anyone tell the true Jesus from the pretender?

Jesus isn’t coming back to convince anyone he is back, or to spend time trying to “make disciples” or get people to believe. His return will be for judgment. There will be no need for miracles. More likely for us though are those who claim to speak for Jesus, but don’t. It is the responsibility of the elect to know the word of God well enough to tell the difference. And it’s good to remember that, for the most part, what we think is okay with God, without actually consulting God, is most likely, not. The Lord Himself says: “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:7-8).

The uninformed have no chance at avoiding anxiety, deception nor calamity. Being informed requires dwelling in, and on, the word of God. As Isaiah put it: “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.”

So . . . how’s your daily Bible reading going? In which Bible class are you participating? Are you “on your guard”?

On Guard Duty

“Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come” (Mark 13:33).

The longest speech in Mark’s gospel (chapter 13) is the one dealing with the end of the temple and the end of the world.  While the command “Be on guard!” occurs in the same context in both Matthew and Luke, Mark focuses on it, mentioning it five times in Jesus’ speech.

The speech itself is notoriously difficult.  Was Jesus talking just about the end of the temple, or was he talking about the end of the world (or both)?  Matthew and Mark each offer clues. At one point, Jesus says: “This generation will not pass away before all these things take place” (vs. 30).  Some scholars suggest Jesus was not talking about his own generation, but the generation that would see the signs.  But that makes Jesus seem a bit foolish.  Obviously the generation that would see the signs wouldn’t pass until they had seen them. The easier answer is that, everything in Mark 13:1-31 addresses the end of the temple.  Verses 32-37 address the end of the world.

But the timing of neither cataclysmic event was really the point.  The point was that both are coming, and you should “be on guard.!”  For the disciples, and perhaps some of Mark’s early readers, the end of the temple would seem like the end of the world.  Whether it genuinely was or not was irrelevant. The imperative for the disciples was to be watchful with their lives.

There will be (and perhaps, for you, already have been) times when you will think your world is coming to an end. But there is something always more important than what is happening.  Are you ready to meet the Lord?  It’s a lifestyle really, to live every day in prepared anticipation of his coming.

They All Fall Down

“And Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’” (Mark 13:2)

So begins the longest speech recorded of Jesus in the gospel of Mark.

Since arriving in Jerusalem in Mark 11, Jesus has viewed the temple, cleansed it, argued in it, and now, he condemns it.  In the next verse, Jesus leaves the temple never to return.

The disciples, however, like Job’s wife leaving Sodom, do not appear eager to leave. “Look, Teacher” they said, “what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!”

And the architecture was magnificent.  Josephus (who saw the building) wrote: “The exterior of the building lacked nothing that could astound mind or eye.  For being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner up than it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as if looking at the sun.” Another wrote: “He who has not seen the Temple in its full construction has never seen a glorious building in his life.” Herod built it for his own honor, but also to burnish the image of Judea in the pagan world.

Magnificent or not, God was not impressed.  People, and their behavior, are more important than architecture, and in the verses that follow, Jesus makes it clear that the temple is to be destroyed and it will be the judgment of God that does it.

It wasn’t a new value system.  Even in the Old Testament, the orthodoxy of pious people was condemned when their day to day behavior didn’t match the holiness of their calling (see Isaiah 58:1-9 and Jeremiah 7:2-11).  An enduring message is this: There is nothing we should prize more than our relationship with God, a valuing that is reflected in our obedient behavior.  Whatever gets in the way of that, no matter how majestic or noble in our own eyes, is slated, like the temple, for destruction.

All In

“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. . . . [W]herever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her”(Mark 14:6,9).

Mark’s story of Jesus is rapidly coming to a close.  There is an ominous feeling in the air.  In the longest speech recorded by Mark, Jesus has pointed to the end of the temple and the end of the world (chapter 13).  Three times the Lord has told his disciples that he’s going to be killed (8:31ff; 9:31ff; 10:33ff).  It would seem, however, that no one was really listening.

No one, that is, except the woman in this story.

As Jesus reclines at a meal on the Tuesday before his death, this woman comes in and pours an expensive perfume on his head.  She knows he is going to die.  She likely would give anything to keep it from happening, but happen it will.  There is nothing she can do and she knows it. Understanding the will of God, and accepting it, she “leans in” with a huge sacrifice of her own, anointing Jesus with an ointment worth nearly a year’s wages.
There were objections of course and unfortunately, the objections usually get the most attention, telling the woman’s story, but ignoring her and the lesson in her action.

Throughout Mark, Jesus has called people to join in his mission, to follow him, to be “all in,” all the way to the cross.  The woman who gave the two copper coins cast in “all her living.” This woman likewise did “what she could” with a huge sacrifice of her own (14:8).  She didn’t do it for the fame.  She did it for the honor of her Lord.

As we think about the resurrection of Jesus this Lord’s day, we might also think about what we are doing to honor him whose death has saved us all.

When Giving is the Greatest

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:43-44)

If you only had the gospel of Mark, you might never know Jesus ever went to Jerusalem until the time of his death. It is not until chapter eleven that he arrives there.

The scene Mark paints of Jerusalem however is not a pretty one. The temple area has degenerated into a commercial trading zone – a poor venue for prayer. The Jewish leadership – mostly religious leadership – has renewed its efforts to murder Jesus (11:18; 12:12) and Jesus has let them know, that he knows, they mean him harm. Chief Priests, Elders, Teachers of the Law, Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees all come to debate with him. The Lord not only defeats them, but accuses the most respected among them of taking advantage of some of society’s most vulnerable – the widows.

All of which brings me to this: Why did the poor widow continue to support such a corrupt system with her contributions?

The answer, of course, is that she wasn’t supporting a corrupt system. She was giving to God. God would hold the leaders accountable for their corruption. He would hold her accountable for her faithfulness. The widow wasn’t concerned about giving to a cause. She was concerned about giving to God. She knew that her financial giving could not be divorced from her faithfulness. She was “all in,” and she proved it by giving all she had to live on.

Ironic is it not? The religious leadership was all about taking a life. The widow was all about giving her own life. It is in her example we find Christ-likeness.

Proof of Paternity

In my Vietnam Bible class on Saturday evenings I’ve been teaching the gospel of Luke.  A week ago we looked at the temptation story in Luke 4.
The temptations of Jesus provide an easy lesson.  After all, it has the customary three points: Satan sometimes tempts us to do something good just to get us in his grasp.  At other times he tempts us to settle for less than God intends for us.  Third, he tempts us to doubt God – to challenge God to prove himself.

There are questions though: Why was Jesus in the wilderness in the first place?  He was led there by God for the express purpose of temptation – not that God tempted him, but God placed him in a vulnerable position so that Satan could tempt him.  Why?  And might God do the same to us?
A lesson I’ve often overlooked is why Luke tells us this story in the first place.

He has introduced Jesus as “the Lord,” the “son of the Most High,” the “Savior” and the “Son of God.”  God himself testified to Jesus’ sonship at his baptism.

But was he really?

Luke follows his assertions with a long section (4:1 – 9:50) filled with miracle stories – proofs of Jesus’ identity.  But the first proof is not a miracle.  It is the temptation story.  Satan tempts Jesus twice to prove he is the son of God (the first and third temptation).  Jesus overcomes the temptations by refusing to submit and thereby proves, in an unexpected way, he is the son of God.  Only the Son of God would be able to overcome the devil so decisively.

There is a lesson here for us: We too are God’s children, and there is no greater proof of our relationship with him (or lack of it) than how we too handle and overcome temptation.

“In” or “Out”?

“You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).

The “teachers of the law” (also known as “scribes”) are the second most often mentioned opponents of Jesus. While not of the ruling class themselves, they were none-the-less advisors to the ruling class and perhaps the most influential class in Jewish society. No one knew the law better than they did.

They may also have been the instigators and leaders of the plot against Jesus’ life (compare Mark 11:18 and 12:12). Jesus knew it, so when he says this to a teacher of the law (who had the honesty to agree with him that loving God with all heart, soul, mind, and strength – and loving your neighbor as yourself — is the greatest command), it was high praise indeed. In fact, it is the only time Jesus ever praises a teacher of the law in Mark.

But Jesus’ compliment was not just praise. It was instruction (and a bit of an insult). Not being “far” from the kingdom of God is not the same as being “in” the kingdom of God.

It’s an important point to remember ourselves. One can know God’s commands, know even the greatest of commands and all the intricacies of scripture. But knowing is not the same as doing, and the only way one can be in the kingdom of God is by doing. It’s not a “salvation by works” thing. It’s a “salvation that works” thing. The only way to come under the rule of God is to let Him rule in your life, and that means doing as He has said.