The One who comes after the messenger. Mark 1:7-13

We’re back in Mark 1 this morning, looking at his introduction. We saw last time how by quoting Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 Mark helps us to understand the big picture of what’s going on with the coming of John the Baptist and then Jesus.

God had promised Israel that they would return from exile in Babylon to the land of Israel; a kind of second exodus. And he promised that he would come to them and reign in glory in a splendid temple; and Israel would be established and at peace.

Well, the people returned, but otherwise the promises didn’t fully come to pass. This is where Malachi comes in. He tells them that this is due to their sin and tells how God will send a messenger to call the people to repentance so that when God comes, they can receive salvation and not judgment.

We also looked at how Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 predict a sequential relationship between the two coming ones – the messenger, who is John the Baptist, and the Lord, who is Jesus. They tell us that the messenger comes before the Lord. This week John the Baptist reiterates these prophecies with his own prophesy saying that the “Lord” will come after him. And as we will see, Mark presents Jesus as the fulfillment of all of these prophecies.

Alright, let’s get to our passage, and John’s prophecy.

The prophecy

 7And he (John) preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

A key part of John’s ministry was calling people to be ready for the coming one (Matthew 11:3, Acts 13:25). He describes him as the mighty one.

There’s a Jewish saying that a disciple is to act as a slave to their teacher, except for taking off their sandals (b. Ketub. 96a). But here John is saying he is not fit even to do this slave work for the mighty one.

John also speaks of the coming one as the Spirit baptizer. The one who will inundate people with the Spirit, like he does with water.

This has reference to several promises God makes to his people in the Old Testament:

  • Joel 2:28-29 – “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.”
  • Ezekiel 36:27 – “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
  • Isaiah 44:3 – “I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.”

John’s water baptism was preparatory. The coming One’s Spirit baptism brings the reality of the promises.

This brings us to –

The fulfillment

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

We always ask, ’Why was Jesus baptized?’ After all, he didn’t need to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. Well, just as the Lord God didn’t need to be baptized, but led his people through the waters of the Red Sea (Psalm 106:9),  so Jesus also goes through the waters with his people, the remnant John has prepared. Just as the Lord didn’t need to be baptized when Israel entered the promised land through the waters of the Jordan (the ark, Joshua 3), so Jesus also goes through the waters with his people.

And as the prophet Isaiah spoke of a second exodus to bring the people back to the land, he said in 43:2, “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” (Along these lines, Jesus may have seen this as a part of “the way of the Lord” that John prepared, and so saw it as fulfillment of the prophecies in Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1.)

The Lord, who is pure and holy, always goes through the waters with his people and leads them to salvation.

But two other things are also going on here. 1) His water baptism, as we will see, is the occasion of his anointing by the Spirit. This is where his title “the anointed one” comes from. He received the Spirit without measure (John  3:34 NLT). He was empowered to fulfill his mission as the Savior. And Spirit baptism, of which this is the most amazing example, and water baptism are connected in both the Old and New Testaments. (Spirit baptism)

And 2) his water baptism becomes the occasion where he publicly commits to his mission, which includes the cross. We saw in previous teaching, that baptism pictures a death and a resurrection (The cruciform shape of baptism. And as well, his water baptism pictures his coming death and resurrection – his true baptism, which he submits to here (Mark 10:38-39). And it is this baptism of blood, that will bring about the reality of salvation that water baptism points to.

10And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.

The phrase “came up out of the water” refers to when he comes out of the Jordan river where he was baptized, that is onto the shore (See Acts 8:38-39).

He then has a visionary experience. Such experiences are connected to the idea of an open heaven (John 1:51). It says the heavens were “torn open.” This likely echoes Isaiah 64:1, a prayer to God – “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down . . .” to bring salvation. (See Mark 15:38)

And then the Spirit comes upon him. As I said, this is his anointing, where his title, the anointed one (Messiah or Christ) comes from. That the Messiah would be anointed with the Spirit is spoken of in several passages, for instance Isaiah 42:1 says, “I will put my Spirit upon him.” (Also 11:2; 61:1)

The phrase “like” a dove could mean gently like a dove lands. But more likely it means Jesus saw the Holy Spirit descend upon him in the form of a dove (See Luke 3:22). What does the dove symbolize? Remember Noah’s water crossing (Genesis 8:8-12), which is a type of baptism (1 Peter 3:21) and the dove there (Passing through the waters, Baptism as a pledge to God)? It’s a sign of the end of judgment and the beginning of new life. The Spirit will bring new life through Jesus to all who seek him.

11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

God’s speech here echoes Psalm 2:7 (LXX). This is a Psalm that speaks of the coronation of an Israelite king. God says to the king in part – “You are my son.” (This Psalm echoes 2 Samuel 7:14, which speaks of David’s son and a son of God.)

And the phrase, “I am well pleased” hearkens back to Isaiah 42:1, which we just looked at. It says, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom by soul delights.” (There is also a possible echo of Genesis 22:2 LXX, and Jeremiah 38:20 LXX). Jesus is God’s Son; his pleasing servant and Messianic king.

But not only this, he is God’s “beloved” or “dear” Son. This word can also mean only. He is God’s Son in a unique and special way that no one else can claim (Mark 9:7; 12:6).

So Jesus’ baptism connects back to the titles from v. 1. Jesus truly is the anointed one and the Son of God.

Now, although Mark’s presentation makes it sound like all this was private, Matthew’s account makes it sound public – and in John’s Gospel we know that John the Baptist saw the Spirit come upon Jesus (John 1:31-34).

Notice in this baptismal event that God the Father speaks, the Spirit anoints and the Son is baptized.

And then the scene shifts –

12The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.

That Jesus is tested after his water experience/anointing fits the biblical pattern. Israel went through the waters, had a Spirit experience (Exodus 15) and then went into the desert to be tested and ended up staying for 40 years. So also David was anointed king, but then was forced into the wilderness for a time of testing before his rule.

Jesus is actually already in the wilderness (vs. 4, 9) so he is led out further, away from all people.

The word “drove out” can also be translated “cast out.” It kind of sounds like the Spirit is eager to move things forward. There’s not a lot of detail. Satan is the agent of the testing. And Mark speaks of “wild animals” and “the angels.” There seems to be two sides here, Satan and the wild animals, which are hostile – and the Spirit and the angels who support Jesus.

This episode unveils the spiritual reality of what’s going on in Jesus’ mission.  There is a fight between two powerful spiritual forces. It points back to Psalm 91:9-13. This passage mentions angels supporting the righteous one, and him treading upon “the lion, the adder; the young lion and the serpent.” In this light, this short vignette pictures Jesus victorious – with the help of the Spirit and angels, over wild animals and the serpent – a reference to Satan via Genesis 3:15, when God said to Eve her offspring would “bruise the serpent’s head.”

Some highlights

 . . . to encourage and challenge us.

 As I said last week, when we see how God’s plans are from of old, are orderly and have come to pass in the coming of John and Jesus, we should take confidence in God’s plans that are still unfolding. He will come through! Jesus will come again!

John calls Jesus the Spirit baptizer. And Jesus himself was full of the Spirit. This was a key part of the promises of God, that Jesus brings to fulfillment. And so I ask, has Jesus baptized you in the Spirit? And if you have received this, are you continuing to remain full of the Spirit?

As we see in the testing of Jesus, there is a spiritual battle going on. We sometimes lose track of this. In Western culture we are not comfortable with supernatural categories. But not only is God working in this world by his Spirit and angels, there is Satan who opposes him. And we are caught up in this. And if we want to be victorious like Jesus, it will be through our faith in Jesus and the empowerment of the Spirit.

Are you alert to the fight? Or are you sleepwalking through life? Unaware. Never really knowing what’s gong on around you. We need to wake up!

The one who comes before the Lord. Mark 1:1-8

We’re beginning a new series today on the Gospel of Mark. A few things about Mark to begin with. It was most likely the first gospel written. And it likely contains the stories and teachings of Jesus that the apostle Peter passed down (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) and John Mark later wrote out. These thing are likely,  I think, but they’re not from Scripture.

With regard to the Gospel itself, a few observations:

  • It’s fast paced. “Immediately” seems to be one of Mark’s favorite words.
  • Its stories are usually longer with more vivid details than Matthew or Luke.
  • And yet it’s the shortest Gospel, because it has less teaching material in it than either Matthew or Luke.

We begin with Mark’s introduction 1:1-15. Notice that it is bracketed by the phrase “good news” (or Gospel) in v. 1 and vs. 14-15 (2x).

It doesn’t get nearly as much attention as the other Gospel beginnings, like Matthew and Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus or John’s exalted presentation of the pre-existent Word made flesh in Jesus. But it has its own point of view and points to make.

It turns on two prophetic words, one from a set of passages in the Old Testament in vs. 2-3, and the other from John the Baptist in vs. 7-8. In the first, which we will focus on today, the messenger is to come “before” the Lord; and in the second, the mighty Spirit-giver is to come “after” the messenger. This is how the passage is put together.

Alright, let’s jump in.

Mark 1:1-8

The opening line

1The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the anointed one, the Son of God –

When Mark says, “the beginning,” this has to do with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, following John the Baptist’s work of preparation (see Acts 10:37). But it can also refer to the whole Gospel. Mark is saying, this is how the Christian movement began.

We learn several things here about who Jesus is. 1) He is the “Christ.” This is the Greek version of the Hebrew word which means “Messiah” or more literally “the anointed one,” which is what I’m going with. This refers back to the Old Testament practice of anointing someone with oil when they are commissioned by God to do something. It was especially connected to the expected son of David who would come as the anointed one, to save God’s people.

2) Jesus is the “son of God.” This phrase is most often associated with the kings of Israel (2 Samuel 7:13-14; Psalm 2:7; Psalm 89:26-27), and sometimes Israel itself (Exodus 4:22-23; Hosea 11:1; Jeremiah 31:9, 20). It can also refer to divine beings or angels (e.g. the sons of God in Job). Basically it means one who rules, although we will see that Jesus is God’s son in unique and special way (Mark 14:61-62).

3) Finally the phrase “good news” tells us something about Jesus. In Isaiah it refers to the coming of God to save Israel and to establish his rule or kingdom (Isaiah 40:9; 52:7; 61:1). In the Roman world it was used to announce the success of an Emperor or the birth of a new Emperor. In both contexts it is a royal announcement. And so this tells us that Jesus is a king.

The prophecy

2as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, 3the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

Although Mark says, “as it is written in Isaiah,” he is actually quoting two or more passages. This is just how they sometimes did things back in the day, combining passages like this and just using one name.

Let’s look at the two key quotes here in reverse order. Isaiah 40:3 says in part, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God.’(LXX). In context this refers to the announcement of the end of exile in Babylon and God’s promise to bring Israel back to its land. This is framed by Isaiah as a second Exodus from Babylon to the land of Israel. (The path here is God’s, but like with the original Exodus, it is God and his people who journey together to the land. The Isaiah Targum speaks of the way of God and the congregation of our God.) (Mark’s quote here can also be translated to match the parallelism of the Hebrew version – “A voice cries ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  Witheringon) 

And then we have Malachi 3:1 which says in part, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” (Mark’s version is a little different. See note below). This person is further identified in Malachi 4:5-6 as Elijah, who is commissioned to bring about repentance in Israel before God comes to visit them.

(Some include here Exodus 23:20. The language is close and has in it Mark’s phrase, “before your face.” In some Jewish interpretation Malachi 1:3 and Exodus 23:20 are connected (Exodus Raba 32:9; Deuteronomy Raba 11:9.) (And some see Malachi 3:1 as a reflection on Exodus 23:20 (Beth Glazier-McDonald.) But it doesn’t line up with what Mark is saying. God sent an angel/messenger before Israel in Exodus 23. If anything the messenger is greater than Israel, the “you” here. Whereas the opposite is the case in Mark. Mark seems to be only interested in the Malachi context.)

The background of these prophecies. Now, by quoting these passages we get Mark’s insight into what’s going on with the coming of John the Baptist and then Jesus. As I said, Isaiah speaks of a second Exodus out of exile back to the land. And several prophets spoke of how things would radically change; how God would reign in glory in a splendid temple and Israel would be established in the land and at peace. Well, the people came back, but they struggled, still under Gentile rule, the Persians, and still with no sense that anything had really changed. So there was disillusionment.

Well, the book of Malachi picks up in this context. He tells the people that the holdup on the fulfillment of the promises is due to their sin. And so he predicts that God will send a messenger, Elijah to prepare Israel for his coming in power to reign. And he is to prepare them by calling them to repentance so that when God comes, it won’t end in further judgment. (I am indebted to Rikk Watts for this construal of Malachi’s role.)

So Mark is saying – this is what’s going on with the coming of John and then Jesus. God is working to bring about his kingdom; to fulfill his promises to his people of salvation and blessing.

Now, before we get to how John the Baptist fulfills his role as the prophesied messenger, let’s take a moment to look at the incredible claims that Mark is making about who Jesus is in these verses.

In Malachi the messenger prepares for the coming of God. In Mark Jesus is the one who comes. So he is closely identifying God and Jesus, but still they are different. Jesus is the Son of God.

(And in the form that Mark uses, God says to a third part – applied to Jesus here, that the messenger will prepare “your way.” So where does the phrase “before your face” come from? The Hebrew and Greek versions of Malachi both literally say, “before my face.” Early Jewish Christians read “face” as an extension of God – much like the son of man is in Daniel 7:13-14 or the second lord in the phrase “the Lord said to my Lord . . .” Mark 12:36. This is a human embodiment of Yahweh, or to put it another way, the pre-existent Son of God come in human form. (I am indebted to Richard Bauckham – Markan Christology). (This also means that Malachi himself is referring to a conversation between the Lord and his face, also identified as the “Lord” spoken of in the third person in this verse. In other words this speaks to the preexistence of the Son of God – Matthew Bates.)

In Isaiah the voice that cries out prepares for the coming of the Lord. In Mark Jesus is the one who comes. So again he is closely identifying God and Jesus, but the word “Lord” in this Gospel applies to Jesus and to God. (We will see this same kind of pattern in other places in Mark’s Gospel.) They are the same in some way, but still different. One is the Father, one is the Son.

(Mark changes the Isaiah quote at the end from “the paths of our God” to “his paths.” This allows the Lord in the verse to refer to Jesus. In early Christian practice, “Lord” in the Old Testament was sometimes taken as a reference to Jesus, but not usually “God.”)

The fulfillment 

After the prediction of the messenger who will first prepare the way, John shows up doing just this.

4John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

Now, not everyone came of course, but Mark is emphasizing his success.

The connection between the messenger and John is clear. The messenger is to prepare the way,  which includes calling for repentance on the part of Israel (Malachi 4:15-16). John calls the people to repentance.

Also, the messenger is associated with the wilderness as is Elijah.  Well, John is in the wilderness and he is telling people to prepare the way.

And then we have v. 6.

6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.

The messenger is identified as Elijah in some sense and John looks just like Elijah. In 2 Kings 1:8 someone describes Elijah in this way: “He wore a garment of hair with a belt of leather around his waist.” As Jesus says later in Mark 9:13, “Elijah has come” and he is referring to John the Baptist. (See also Luke 1:17).

Notice how what John is doing fits with Isaiah and Malachi’s vision of the need to prepare the people for the coming of God. In the first exodus, Israel crossed through the Red Sea. And then with Joshua the Jordan river. John is symbolically having Israelites go through the waters again (here the Jordan river.) So John is calling Israel to be reconstituted as a new people, ready for the coming of God. And since the leaders in Jerusalem rejected him, he is calling out a remnant to make them ready for the Lord. All of this points to the fulfillment of the promise of the prophets about Israel’s salvation. It all fits together.

The final way that John prepared the way is his witness to the coming one, the Lord.

7And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

We will look at this in more detail next time, but notice his deference. The coming one is mightier; I am not worthy to even be his slave. I baptize with water, but his baptism is the real thing, the giving of the Spirit. He’s saying, I’m just the messenger, the Savior is still  to come.

In all this he reiterates what the previous prophets taught: the messenger come first, before the Lord; and as the messenger he says, after me comes the promised one.

What do we learn?

Jesus is exalted. He is the anointed one; the Messiah. He is the Son of God. And, he is the coming of God himself in human form, in fulfillment of the promises.

We are privileged to know this before the story begins, while the people in the story struggle to understand who Jesus is, to the end.

This teaches us about God’s plans. They are from of old. This was all pointed to by the prophets, Isaiah and Malachi and repeated by John. God’s plans are orderly. The messenger come first to prepare and after this comes the Lord to bring salvation. God’s plans are sure and true. It came to pass just as it was supposed to, which is the story Mark is telling us about. This should lead us to trust in God’s full outworking of his plan to bring it all to completion, as we wait our Lord’s second coming.

And speaking of his coming, we need to continue to be prepared for God’s coming to us. Are we single mindedly focused on God and serving him? Or are we off following the world, waiting time, focused on this life and not finishing the mission he gave us to expand his kingdom? Are you prepared? He could come at any time.

Jesus is our hope!

Our title today is Jesus is our hope! The theme is hope because the message of Easter is a message of hope and because Jesus is all about bringing hope to people. This is clear from when Jesus walked the earth. Here are some examples from the gospels:

  • Jesus gave hope to the sick. Mark 1:40-42 tells the story of a man with leprosy. He came to Jesus and asked for healing. He said, “If you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus was moved with compassion – and healed the man immediately. He was set free from a condition that had ruined his life. And now he was able to move forward and live again.
  • Jesus gave hope to those who had sinned. In Luke 7:36-50 a woman, most likely a prostitute, came to Jesus in tears and anointed his feet as an expression of devotion and as a response to his message of repentance. Jesus said to her “your sins are forgiven.” Her repentance was accepted. She was forgiven and she was given a chance for a new life; a fresh start.
  • Jesus gave hope to those who were enslaved by evil powers. Mark 1:23-26 tells of how a demonized man was set free by Jesus. He simply said, “Come out of him” and the demon had to leave. This man was miserable and enslaved, but Jesus set him free and now he had new life.
  • Jesus gave hope to those who were excluded. Luke 5:27-32 tells how Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. Those not acceptable to the rest of society. Instead of being outcasts, now they were befriended by Jesus and given another chance.
  • Jesus gave hope to those who were confused. Mark 6:34 says, “Jesus saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. Those who were lost and needed guidance learned from the good Shepherd himself, the paths of righteousness and peace.
  • Jesus gave hope to those who needed new purpose in their lives. Matthew 9:9 recounts how Jesus called Matthew out of a dead-end situation in life, a tax collector for the very empire that was oppressing his people. Jesus said to him “follow me.” that is, come and work with me. And he did. Matthew found a new life focus that was full of meaning and true significance.
  • Jesus gave hope to those who needed God to be near. God worked through Jesus by the power of the Spirit. God’s presence was real to people when Jesus was around. In Luke 7:16, after Jesus raised a young man from the dead, the crowds said, “God has visited his people!” Those who felt far away, even abandoned by God, were brought close, as the Spirit worked through Jesus.

So in all of these examples we see people who were suffering, miserable, confused, disillusioned; who were despairing. And Jesus gave these very ones hope.

But the world we live in doesn’t like the hope Jesus gives. It tells us to chase after false hopes that are empty and useless. And if we do hope in Jesus, it seeks to crush this.

In Jesus’ own day, the guardians of the way things are – the authorities and the powers of evil caught up to Jesus. And they killed him. As the two men on the road to Emmaus said, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). Jesus gave them hope, but now their hopes were dashed.

But guess what? Jesus didn’t stay dead! Amen? The “powers that be” thought they had extinguished our hope; they thought they had extinguished Jesus. But they failed! And oh how they failed. As the angel said to those who looked for Jesus’ dead body, “He has risen; he is not here” (Mark 16:6).

Jesus lives! And so our hope lives. For since Jesus is still alive, he is ever with us, to continue to help us. And so I ask . . .

  • Do you suffer sickness? Are you in need of healing? The same Jesus who healed a leper and so many others, still lives to heal us and help us in our suffering. And when the Father says it’s time, Jesus will give us a new resurrection body that will live forever without pain or suffering. We too have hope for healing and the redemption of our bodies.  Jesus is our hope!
  • Do you feel guilt and shame for sin you have committed? The same Jesus who forgave sins and who laid down his life on the cross for the forgiveness of sins,  still lives to forgive us when we turn to him in repentance. We too have the hope of forgiveness. Our guilt and shame can be taken away. We can have a new, clean, fresh start. Jesus is our hope!
  • Are you enslaved by powerful evil forces; unable to break free from sinful habits? The same Jesus who cast out demons with a word, still lives to deliver us from the evil one. We too have hope of freedom and new life from the powers of evil that seek to enslave and destroy us. Jesus is our hope!
  • Do you feel excluded, alienated, left out? The same Jesus who welcomed any and all who would follow him, still lives to befriend us. We too have hope of connection with Jesus; of acceptance by him; of relationship with him – and his people. Jesus is our hope!
  • Do you need guidance in your life? Are you confused about God’s will? The same Jesus who taught the crowds of old, still lives and makes known to us his teaching. We too have hope that we can know God’s way and that we can learn, from the good shepherd himself, the paths of peace. Jesus is our hope!
  • Do you feel adrift in your life; without a purposeThe same Jesus who gave Matthew new direction, still lives to call us from our dead ends and our wrong turns – to come and follow him and to finish what he began. We too have hope for a meaningful and significant life doing what God has called us to do and what God has gifted us to do. Jesus is our hope!
  • Do you feel separated from God; that God is far awayThe same Jesus who made God present to the people of old by the Spirit, still lives and he pours out this same Holy Spirit into our hearts and lives so that God lives in us. We too have hope of knowing and being near to God; to have a relationship with God; to have God come and live within us by the Spirit. Jesus is our hope!

Indeed, no matter what problem or circumstance we find ourselves in, because he lives Jesus gives us hope. A hope that cannot be crushed, but that sustains through all of life.

Overcoming barriers to effective prayer (pt 2)

Last week we began looking at barriers to effective prayer, things that keep us from getting our prayers answered, and also how to overcome these obstacles. Today we look at several more, and we begin with –

4. Wrong relationships with others

What I’m saying here is that we can’t be in right relationship with God, if we’re not in right relationship with others, or at least having done all that we can to be in right relationship with them. Our horizontal (as it were) relationships with other people, affect our vertical relationship with God. They are interconnected. And so broken relationships with others, hinder our relationship with God and thus our prayers to God.

Here’s an example that Jesus taught about, when we wrong someone. Matthew 5:23-24 – “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister and then come offer your gift.” He’s talking about coming into the temple to offer a gift, to worship, to pray to God. And if while you’re doing this you remember that there’s a broken relationship with others, and the context here is that it’s broken by your angry, hurtful, damaging words, go make it right with the other person first, and then come to relate to God. Why? Because it affects your ability to pray and worship.

Another example is mistreating your spouse. Peter says in 1 Peter 3:7 – “Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman . . . so that your prayers may not be hindered.” What’s he saying? If you’re mistreating your wife; if you’re harsh in your words or violent in your actions, your prayers will be hindered! [See also 1 Timothy 2:8 speaking to husbands]. And this certainly applies the other way around as well, wives don’t mistreat your husbands.

Indeed, it applies to all our relationships with others, family, neighbors, coworkers, strangers, enemies. How you interact with them can affect your prayer life – if you are treating them wrongly. And so to be effective pray-ers; to be in right relationship with God, so that your prayers are heard you must tend to your relationships. Make sure you are in right relationship with others. And if there’s a problem, do all you can to make it right, from your end of the relationship.

5. Asking God for things, that we don’t give to others

We say, “Oh God, I need your help with this and that. I need your mercy; I have done wrong. Lord, I need you to provide for my material needs.” But then, when others come to us and say “I need your help, I need your mercy, I need assistance with my material needs” – we say “No way!”

There’s a principle here, God won’t give us, what we won’t give to others. God doesn’t tolerate such double standards.

A clear example of this is asking God for forgiveness. Jesus said in Matthew 6:15, “If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  We can ask God for forgiveness all day long, but if we’re not giving it to those who have done harm to us and have come to us seeking mercy – we will not get it from God. As the passage says, “neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

But the promise in Matthew 6:14 is that, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” If you give mercy to those who seek it from you, God will give you mercy when you seek it from him.

This principle that, God won’t give us, what we won’t give to others, is also true in other areas. Take for instance asking God to provide for your needs. Proverbs 21:13 says, “Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.” If you’re someone who turns away others who come to you with legitimate needs, God will not hear you in your day of trouble; God will turn away from you.

But on the other hand, the psalmist says in Psalm 41:1– “Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble, the Lord delivers him.” If you help the one in need, God will help you in your day of need. So we should give freely to others, mercy and help, and God will give generously to you.

6. Doubting God and God’s promises

God gives us, in the words of 2 Peter 1:4, “many great and precious promises” that God will care for us; that God will give us his mercy. James 1:6-8 talks about one such promise, praying for wisdom from God. It says, “But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” When we doubt God and God’s promises, it makes us unable to receive what God wants to give us.

Here’s an example of doubt as a hindrance to receiving what God want to give us. Turn if you will to Mark 6:1-6.

1He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? 3Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. 4And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” 5And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. 6And he marveled because of their unbelief.

Faith in God and God’s promises is what opens the door for God to work in our lives. So if we want our prayers answered we need to lay aside doubt, and choose to have confidence in God and God’s promises; to rely on God, who is more reliable than anyone. As 1 Thessalonians 5:24 says, “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”

7. A lack of persistence in our prayers

Jesus talks about the importance of this in Luke 18:1-8. This is the story of the woman who kept coming to the judge to ask for justice, who finally received an answer because of her persistence. Luke tells us that Jesus taught in this parable that “we ought always to pray and not lose heart” – v. 1. He taught us in this story “to cry out to God day and night” – v. 7

It’s one thing if God says no, and in biblical tradition you can press God up to three times when he says no – e.g. Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Paul praying about his thorn. But if there isn’t a no, go for it!

Why is persistence important? Firs of all, God wants to see where our heart is. Deuteronomy 4:29, says, you will seek and find the Lord, “if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul.” Is this a casual thing, or are we really seeking God for an answer? Our heart is made known in the persistence or lack of it in our prayers.

And also, we are involved in spiritual warfare. There’s a third party involved, and Satan and the powers of evil resist God’s will being done on earth. And our persistent prayer plays a role in overcoming this spiritual opposition.

So let’s not give up as we seek to have God’s will come to pass in our lives and in our congregation.

Overcoming barriers to effective prayer (pt 1)

Last week we looked at our need to pray so that God can work through us here to grow his kingdom. Today, I want to continue on this theme and offer some teaching that I hope will help equip us to be better pray-ers under the title, “Overcoming Barriers to Effective Prayer” We’ll look at three barriers today – things that hinder our prayers from being effective or even heard, and next week, I hope to share more on this topic.

1. Harboring unrighteousness in our lives

Sin blocks our relationship with God. As Isaiah 59:2 says, “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.” In this situation, God doesn’t hear us when we pray.

And that’s because it’s hard to communicate with someone when you don’t have a relationship with them, or especially when there is a broken relationship, unless, of course, you are talking about that brokenness and trying to fix it.

And let me be clear, God’s ears are always open to hear prayers of confession and repentance! No matter what you’ve done. No sin you have committed, no wrong you have done is too great that God cannot give you the mercy of his forgiveness.

But, if we stubbornly hold on to our sin that’s a different thing. I’m not talking here about being perfect. I am talking about willful, known sin that we choose to do and cling to it. We are just plain choosing not to obey. If we hold stubbornly to these sins God will not hear our prayers. God will not respond to us.

  • The blind man whom Jesus healed expressed it well when he said in, John 9:31 – “We know that God does not listen to sinners . . .” that is, those who choose to disobey God.
  • In Psalm 66:18, talking about prayer, the psalmist says, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.”

Well, if God doesn’t hear us when we cling to our sin, we can say with confidence that God does hear us when we confess and find forgiveness for our sins and when we walk in God’s ways

There are many scriptures that speak to this.

  • The blind man whom Jesus healed also said in John 9:31, “. . . if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.”
  • 1 John 3:22 – “And we receive from God whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.”
  • 1 Peter 3:12 – “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer.”
  • James 5:16 – “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

All of these passages teach us that the way we live our lives does make a difference in our prayer life.

If this is an obstacle to your prayers, I encourage you, seek forgiveness and then choose to walk in God’s ways. And then, as 1 Peter says, “his ears (will) be open to (your) prayer,” and as James 5:16 says, your prayers will be “powerful and effective” as well.

2. Self-righteousness

We’re talking about “pride” here; a wrongful overestimation of who we are and how good we are. This is the artificial substitute for what we just looked at. It is not the righteousness that comes from God working in us as he transforms our lives, but rather our own deeds done in our own strength to try to impress God and others, accompanied by the attitude that we are better than others.

Please turn to Luke 18:9-14. v. 9 tells us, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” So this is definitely about self-righteousness.

Let me read for you vs. 10-13

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.”

So both men came to the temple, the place of prayer. And they both offered up to God their prayers. And as the story tells us God heard the tax collector’s prayer, but God did not hear the Pharisee’s prayer. Why? God does not respond to pride and arrogance

As v. 14 of our  passage says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.” The Pharisee received nothing from God. But God does listen to those who humble themselves before him. Again v. 14, “But the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

It is as Psalm 138:6 says, “For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar.”  When we are self-righteousness, God keeps us at a distance. But God listens to the lowly when they call out to him.

A final barrier for today is –

3. A selfish focus to your prayers

This is where prayer is really all about you and your desires. James 4:3 says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” The context of James 4 has to do with the people’s selfishness, worldly desires, and ambitions. And the point is that God doesn’t answer these kinds of requests.

A good example of this is from Mark 10:35-45. In v. 35 James and his brother John say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Wow! Doesn’t this sound like a lot of what goes for prayer today? And there are some who teach Christians to pray this way.

What did they want? v. 37, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” In v. 40 Jesus tells them no. Only God can determine who will be exalted in this way. And in vs. 42-45 he teaches his disciples to forsake this kind of worldly ambition to be over others. Rather they are to lower themselves and serve others.

James and his brother John asked, but they did not receive. And that’s because God doesn’t answer selfish requests. (Or if he does it tends to be in the form of judgment – Numbers 11).

Prayer is about God’s will, not just what we want. What we have to learn and remember is that God is not a Cosmic Santa Claus. And the point of prayer is not to give him our daily Christmas list of gifts we want. God is not here to cater to our dreams, our ambitions, our cravings, and what we covet. The point of prayer is to have God’s will be done.

The second petition of the Lord’s prayer sums this up. Jesus taught us to pray, “your will (God) be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And although God allows us to ask for a change in his will or to reconsider the details, and God may or may not grant it – we ask not out of self-centered ambition, but because we are seeking out God’s mercy and glory in a situation.

Alright, we have looked at three barriers to effective prayer and how to overcome them:

1 Harboring unrighteousness – seek forgiveness and walk in God’s ways

 2. Self-righteousness – humble yourself before God

 3. A selfish focus – pray for God’s will to be done

We’ll pick this up again next week and look at how to overcome several other barriers to effective prayer.

A call to prayer

I want to talk about prayer today, and the next two Sundays. I’m doing this to help us get focused as we begin to have designated times of prayer for our congregation and the work of God here.

God calls us to work for his kingdom. As a congregation this means we are to be growing in our lives of ministry and service to God and reaching out to others to lead them into God’s kingdom. But when we think about this task, we soon realize that –

We have to pray!

That’s because we can’t do any of this in our own strength. Oh sure, we might be able to do some things through our natural talents and gifts. There are some who have built whole huge churches, but in the flesh. Later you find out they are not even a believer or are involved in something like adultery. And think of the various  cult leaders who have gathered a crowd, and many that still grow today. God is not in this.

What we can’t do in our own strength is what God calls us to do. In the power of our flesh we can’t do anything of eternal significance; we can’t produce fruit that remains

As Psalm 127:1 says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” When God calls us to do something, God has to do it through us. Otherwise we are ultimately working in vain.

Also, we have to pray because there’s a whole realm of spiritual powers out there that stand against and oppose God’s work. There’s a spiritual battle going on. When we try to do something for the kingdom, there will be a response! It might be opposition from the community. It might be disruption in our church through conflict or distraction. It might be attacks on our physical health. Or it might be discouragement because of difficult testing and trials.

Ephesians 6:12 says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Once we realize our own weakness on the one hand and the powers arrayed against us on the other, we understand the need and importance of prayer for accomplishing God’s call in our congregation. We understand that, if we want to fulfill God’s call, we need to call on God. If we want to do things for the kingdom, if we want to move forward here with the work that God has called us to, we have to be praying.

As an encouragement to prayer, I want you to –

Know that God truly listens to our prayers

It’s not true that everything is already predetermined by God, so that prayer is ultimately meaningless. Rather, God invites us to work with him in bringing to pass his plan to redeem this world.

And God listens to us regarding the details of his plan for the world, the timing and the scope of who is involved.  God actually listens to and takes into account our input. So when we pray, we are involved with God in changing this world and bringing in the kingdom!

Here are some examples of God listening to people’ prayers. Abraham interceding for Sodom: Genesis 18:16-33. God fully intended to destroy Sodom for its sin. But Abraham prayed. He said to God, if you find 50 righteous people will you spare the city? God said yes! And then he went on to say, if you find 45? if you find 40? 30? 20? 10? And God listened to Abraham and agreed to spare the city for 10 righteous people.

God was willing to change the plan. But, as you remember, there weren’t even 10 righteous people there. But God did spare Lot and his family since, as Abraham had said, the righteous should not perish with the unrighteous.

Moses praying for Israel after the golden calf: Deuteronomy 9-10. God had determined to destroy Israel. Moses says in Deuteronomy 9:25, “the Lord had said he would destroy you.” (Also 9:14; 19). But Moses prayed for Israel. He stepped in and interceded. And Moses said, “The Lord listed to me . . . The Lord was unwilling to destroy you” – Deuteronomy 10:10. What God had determined to do was altered through Moses’ prayer.

Finally, while dying, Hezekiah prayed for longer life: Isaiah 38. The prophet Isaiah came to the king and said, “Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die, you shall not recover.” Isaiah 38:1. You can’t get any clearer than this! But Hezekiah prayed. And God responded – “I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add fifteen years to your life” – Isaiah 38:5. The details of God’s plan were changed in response to prayer.

In all these examples we learn that God takes into account our prayers in how he accomplishes his will and purpose in this world. Especially when our prayers are shaped by his perspective and purposes. So we need to make our requests known to God. You have the ear of the King of all creation! Are you taking advantage of this; are you speaking?

As further encouragement to pray, not only does God listen to us –

God does amazing things through our prayers

– to work out his plan for this world. We’ve already seen some examples of this, but I want to give you some more from 2 Kings:

  • 2 Kings 4 – Elisha prayed and a boy was raised from the dead.
  • 2 Kings 6 – Elisha prayed and made the Syrian army blind and thereby overcame them.
  • 2 Kings 19 – Hezekiah prayed and God defeated an army of 185,000 in one night, without human help.

God still works in this way. Let’s look at the New Testament book of Acts:

  • Acts 4 – The church prayed and the house where they prayed was shaken and the gospel went forth with power
  • Acts 9 – Peter prayed and a woman was raised from the dead
  • Acts 12 – The church prayed and Peter was released from prison by an angel
  • Acts 28 – Paul prayed and many were healed

James 5:16-18 sums this up nicely – “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” Our prayers do make a difference!

It goes on to say, “Elijah was a human being like us.” In other words, he was a weak just like us. Remember how he ran away from Jezebel? He’s no different than us! But the text goes on, “and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.” (NRSV)

Even though we are weak, God can do amazing things through our prayers as well, which leads me to my point today

I’m calling us to renewed prayer

Without prayer we won’t get anything done. But with prayer we can accomplish God’s calling. Paul knew this and that’s why he asked for prayer. He said, “keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel” -Ephesians 6:18-19.

If Paul needed this prayer, how much more do I need it; how much more do we as a congregation need it! So let’s increase our prayers for God to work among us and through us.

Pray for me, please! Pray for each other for God to stir us up and to empower us by the Spirit for his kingdom work. Pray that God will use us to connect with our community in new and powerful ways. And pray that God will touch and transform lives.

Children, baptism and God’s blessing

Series on baptism

We’re coming to the end of our series on baptism this morning. And we come to a topic that has been quite controversial. How does baptism relate to children? And as you know, churches have different views on this.

One of the defining beliefs of the Mennonite church is that baptism is for people old enough to choose it for themselves. That is, baptism is for believers. We were originally called Anabaptists by those who opposed us, which means “re-baptizers.” That is, we gave believers’ baptism to those who had already been infant baptized, because infant baptism is not based on faith. And at the time of the Reformation in the 1500’s, both Catholics and Protestants branded us as heretics and killed Anabaptists for this practice.

Of course, now believers’ baptism is as common as can be. And thankfully no one is getting killed over this. But the question remains. Biblically speaking, how does baptism relate to infants and children? Or to put it another way, how should we minister God’s blessing to children?

Our text today is Mark 10:13-16

13And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. 14But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 15Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” 16And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.

I’ll be referring back to this passage as we go along.

I want to begin by pointing out that –

Jesus had a very high regard for children

The word “child” (παιδιον) in our passage covers “infants” all the way up to someone who is nearing adolescence. We know this because of how the word is used in the New Testament.

  • In Luke’s account of this story in chapter 18 he mentions “even infants” being brought to Jesus, and these are called children. (Also in Luke 1:59 the word refers to an 8-day-old).
  • And in Mark 5:39-42 it refers to a 12-year-old.

As one Greek dictionary says, it refers to “a child, normally below the age of puberty” (BDAG). So even though some translations say “little children” it really does mean any preadolescent child. (The word was originally a diminutive of pais (παις) but in the New Testament it has lost its diminutive force, Louw and Nida).

Now, despite what we think today, the ancient world had a low view of children. They had little or no social status. They were seen as little better than slaves, at least until they became adults. In contrast to this, Jesus has a high regard for children indeed.

We see this first of all in that Jesus teaches that children belong to the kingdom. In our passage the disciples sought to keep children away from Jesus. Then v. 14 says, “But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me; do not hinder them for to such belongs the kingdom of God.’”

The disciples, apparently, held a low view of children. But Jesus rebuked them. In fact, he gets mad. “What are you doing!” And then he corrects their wrong thinking, “Don’t hinder them from coming.” Why should they have access to Jesus? Because they’re a part of God’s kingdom already.

This is a status that God gives them, due to their age. A part of what it means to be a child in Scripture is that they are not fully able to discern and choose between right and wrong for themselves. For instance, Deuteronomy 1:39 talks about “. . . your little ones . . . and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil . . ..” This is why we talk about an age of accountability. Children are not able to be fully morally accountable before God, and so God acts in grace towards them.

Also, Jesus teaches that children can teach us how to enter the kingdom. In v. 15 Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” In the parallel passage in Matthew 18:3-4 Jesus clarifies that this has to do with their humility. Now, I don’t think that he’s referring to humility as a personal virtue. Not all kids have this.  Rather, he’s talking about their social lowliness. While the disciples are focused on who is the greatest in this passage (Matthew 18:1) Jesus teaches them that they need to forget about this to enter the kingdom. And children model this.

Children represent God to usJesus said in Mark 9:37, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” This idea is based on what’s called the “shaliach principle,” which says that a person’s representative is as the person. So how you respond to the representative is how you respond to the sender. Jesus teaches here that, not only do his apostles represent him (Matthew 10:40), but children do as well. And so how you receive children reflects how you receive God.

And finally, Jesus received the worship of children. In Matthew 21:15-16, when he proceeded into Jerusalem, children cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” The Pharisees criticized this, but Jesus accepted it.

As we know, children can come to have faith in God. That is, beyond their status of being a part of the kingdom, simply by virtue of being a child – they can have a real relationship with God. This is what I call childhood faith. And this should be encouraged and cultivated. Samuel is an example of this (1 Samuel 3).

So in all these ways, Jesus shows us his high regard for children. But  –

Does this mean we should baptize children?

I’m just gonna tell you briefly why we think this is not the best approach.

First of all, with regard to infants and small children, baptism is always connected to adults choosing faith and repentance. (I say faith and repentance understanding that they are two sides to the same coin. To believe in Jesus is to do what he says, repent. And to repent is to believe in the one who tells you to repent.)

This is what is taught in the New Testament. For instance, Peter taught on the day of Pentecost – “Repent and be baptized . . .” – Acts 2:38. The two go together.

And in the examples we have of baptisms in the New Testament there is always mention of faith or repentance. For instance, the crowd who listened to Philip preach were baptized, it says, “when they believed” – Acts 8:12.examples of baptismEven when whole households were baptized, the stories indicate that all those baptized expressed faith or repentance.

household baptisms

Clearly an infant or small child cannot hear the gospel, understand it and respond with faith and repentance. People need to be old enough to choose baptism for themselves.

Also, there’s no need to baptize infants or children. As we just saw in v. 14, “to such belongs the kingdom.” Whether they have childhood faith or not, preadolescent children are safe in God’s hands. They are below the age of accountability.

I would also say, that the symbolism of baptism doesn’t fit children. In other words, children are not just small adults. Their life and relationship with God is different.

Adults sin and are culpable before God. And they experience the results of sin – including death. And so they need to repent to enter the kingdom. And this is properly symbolized by the baptismal themes of leaving the world through repentance and being delivered from judgment and death.

But children are already a part of the kingdom. As Jesus said, “to such belongs the kingdom.” And they are below the age of accountability. When they become young adults and know the reality of sin and the consequences of this – yes, then the symbolism fits. Even with those who have experienced childhood faith.

Finally, baptism calls people to make far reaching adult kinds of decisions. Yet, as we saw, children are not able to fully discern and choose between right and wrong for themselves.

I say that baptism has to so with adult decisions because Jesus connects receiving baptism to “observing all that I have commanded you” in Matthew 28:19-20. And following Jesus’ teaching call us to make decisions about our entire life direction from now on. For instance, to love your enemies, to accept persecution, to be sexually pure, to sacrifice your life for the kingdom, and to be accountable to the church in these areas and more. But children lack the necessary frame of reference to understand what these choices would even mean.

We know and understand this in other areas of life. We don’t allow children to choose a marriage partner. We don’t allow children to lock into a career choice. Yet baptism is a much more significant decision than any of these, that affects their lives forever.

Baptism, along with the Lord’s supper is something that they can look forward to when they are ready, as a part of their transition to becoming an adult follower of Jesus.

This brings us back to the question –

How should we minister to children?

Jesus didn’t baptize the children that came to him, as we saw in our story. And there are no examples of children being baptized in the rest of the New Testament. But Jesus did minister to children, and we should follow his example.

We are to give them kindness and attention. This is what Jesus models for us when he allowed the children to come to him. He even affectionately hugged them (v. 16). (This fills in what it means to “receive” children in Mark 9).

We are to pray for them and bless them. This is what Jesus models for us. He laid his hands on them and prayed for God’s blessing in their life. And this is why I invite children to come forward when we serve the Lord’s supper. This is the way that Jesus can minister to them, as we receive the bread and cup.

Finally, when we look more broadly at Scripture we are to teach them the way of the LordThis comes from Paul, echoing several Old Testament exhortations. “Fathers . . . bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” – Ephesians 6:4.

And beyond just parents, all of us are to “tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done” – Psalm 78:4. We are to cultivate faith in them as children – and then help them make the transition to an adult faith when the time comes. (2 Timothy 3:14-15)

Baptisms of suffering: Going through life’s deep waters

Series on baptism

Today’s message is about applying things we’ve learned about baptism to our lives when things get really difficult. The title is “Baptisms of suffering: Going through life’s deep waters.”

I would like to begin with a Scripture reading from Psalm 69 (vs. 1-3; 13-17).

Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold. I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.

But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me in your saving faithfulness. Deliver me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters. Let not the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the pit close its mouth over me.

Answer me, O Lord, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me. Hide not your face from your servant; for I am in distress; make haste to answer me.

In this Psalm we encounter “the waters” once again. In this case they refer to times of chaos, turmoil and evil in David’s personal life circumstances.

We all know, of course, that we will face deep waters throughout our lives. Even though we have passed through the waters of baptism, the waters will continue to confront us.

And they become personified in all kinds of ways in various people and circumstances in our lives. Here in Psalm 69 David’s enemies are the embodiment of the waters. We saw this supremely in Jesus where he calls his suffering and death a baptism or water experience in several places.

We will all continue to have times of suffering, grief, persecution and testing. And along with Jesus we can say that these are additional water baptisms, or baptisms of suffering – where we go through the deep waters of life; where we are inundated by the deep.

Now, my point today is that if our times of suffering are in fact water baptisms, then, I believe, we can learn something from our literal water baptism that can help us get through these additional baptisms of suffering. We can learn something that will help us navigate the deep waters we encounter, so that in David’s words, “the deep does not swallow (us) up.” But rather by God’s grace and power we can pass through to the other side.

So here are two things to remember when the floods come.

1. God is able to defeat the waters

Just as he did in our initial salvation experience – pictured in our water baptism – so he can continue to do so, no matter how they come at us. And we need to remember this.

Who is our God? God is the one who overcomes the deep.

  • Psalm 65:7 speaks of God as the one “who stills the roaring of the seas; the roaring of their waves . . .”
  • Psalm 89:9 says of God, “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.”

In the same way, God is able to still the seas for us– the churning, destructive, chaotic, forces of evil in our lives

Who is our God? God is the one who overcomes all the hosts of the waters.

  • Psalm 89:10 says, “You crushed Rahab like a carcass; you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm” – referring to the creation.
  • Psalm 74:13-14 says – “You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness” – referring to the parting of the Red Sea.

In the same way God is able to defeat Satan, for us – that ancient serpent, who tests us and seeks to destroy us. As Paul says to the Romans in 16:20, “the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”

It is an essential defining quality of who our God is, to say that God can defeat the waters and all their hosts.

So, we need not fear the waters! Not because they are not fearful, they truly are, and without God, we are without hope.

No, we need not fear the waters because our God is the Lord even over the deep. As Psalm 93:4 says, “Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the Lord on high is mighty!” The waters are mighty, but God is mightier. And so we should look to him in faith and hope as we go through our difficult times.

2. God will bring us through to the other side

Just as he did in our initial salvation experience – portrayed in water baptism – so he can continue to deliver us. We need to remember this as we go through trials in our lives.

  • He might do this by lifting us up over the deep, and then setting us on dry ground, as with Noah
  • Or he might do this by parting the sea so that we can walk though it to the other side, as with Israel

 However God does it, he will not allow us to be swallowed up, but will deliver us and bring us to the other side. Isaiah 43:2-3 says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you . . . For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” He will be with us and he will save us.

David testifies to this in Psalm 18:16-19, again from his personal life experiences. “He sent from on high, he took me; he drew me out of many waters. He rescued me from my strong enemy and from those who hated me, for they were too mighty for me. They confronted me in the day of my calamity, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me . . .”

We don’t know when he will do it, but we have this promise in 1 Peter 5:10 – “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” And this gives us hope, even in our difficult times. God will bring us through to the other side.

Finally . . .

The other side of the deep waters will sometimes be the other side, that is, our death and going to be with Jesus and then the life that is to come in the new creation. And with regard to this, we can have strong confidence and hope that even the deep waters of death must submit to our God. Just as they did for Jesus, so they will for us – because Jesus goes before us and we are following in the path he has made.

  • We look forward to the day when Satan will be fully defeated. As Isaiah 27:1 says, “In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.”
  • And on that day there will be no more deep. Revelation 21:1 says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”
  • And on that other shore, as Revelation 21:4 says, there will be no more death and no more tears.

Spirit baptism

Series on baptism

We’re still looking at baptism today, however we are doing something a little different as we move to the topic of Spirit baptism.

Being “baptized in the Spirit” is talked about in several places, although the key text(s) is connected to John the Baptist, and is repeated in all four gospels.

In John 1:33 God said to John, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain (Jesus), this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” (See also John 3:34)

 In the first three gospels it comes not just as an identity statement about Jesus, but in the form of a promise from John. In Matthew 3:11 John himself said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me . . . will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Also in – Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16)

 This foundational promise is repeated in Acts. In Acts 1:5, just before his ascension, Jesus said, “for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” In Acts 11:16 Peter, quoting Jesus said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” So this promise is emphasized in the New Testament.

Finally, this language of Spirit baptism also shows up in 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul says, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” So the idea of receiving the Spirit as a baptism experience is firmly rooted.

But how is it that we can talk of –

Spirit baptism as a water experience?

Well, we’ve already seen how there can be both literal and figurative baptisms. The creation, the flood, the Red Sea crossing and Christian baptism all involve actual water. However, Jesus’ suffering and death is a figurative baptism. The water is used to speak of the evil and suffering that Jesus went through.

In a similar way, Spirit Baptism is also a figurative baptism. This baptism language works because the Spirit is often likened to water in Scripture. Let’s look at this.

1. God “pours out” the Spirit. Isaiah 44:3 says, “For I will pour out water on the thirsty land. . .; I will pour out my Spirit upon your descendants . . ..” Joel 2:28 says, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh . . ..” And in Acts 2:33, after teaching that Jesus received the promise of the Spirit, Peter says “he has poured out this that you both see and hear”; talking about Pentecost. In all of these, “poured out” is a liquid or water metaphor. The Spirit is likened to water.

2. We “drink” the Spirit. In John 7:37-38 Jesus said concerning the Spirit, “Let the one who is thirsty come to me and drink.” Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 12:13, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body . . . and were made to drink of one Spirit.” Spirit baptism is here a drinking in of the Spirit.

3. When we drink, we are filled with the Spirit. Acts 2:4 says, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” And Ephesians 5:18 says, “Do not get drunk with wine . . . but be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Both of these references parallel being full of wine and being full of the Spirit. In Ephesians it’s obvious. But it’s also true in Acts 2. On the day of Pentecost the crowds thought they “were filled with new wine” (Acts 2:13). Peter says, No! It’s too early in the morning to be drunk! This is the Spirit of God coming down (Acts 2:15). We are not to be filled with wine, which is drunkenness. But we are to be filled with a different drink – the Holy Spirit.

Now all of this, as I am sure you have noticed, points to –

The difference between water baptism and Spirit baptism

Even though Spirit baptism is a water experience, this is a different kind of water than the water that’s involved in water baptism:

  • The waters of water baptism are the deep waters that represent chaos, evil and turmoil. To have these waters is not a good thing. That’s why God must act in power to deliver us from these waters so that we can pass through them to the other side.
  • The water of Spirit baptism is good water; drinking water. It’s the water of the stream, the fountain or the spring. It’s the living water of God that nourishes life. We don’t need to be delivered from this water, rather we are to keep drinking of it.

Just a footnote here: Our Christian tradition allows for flexibility in terms of how people are baptized through immersion or pouring, although certainly pouring is the traditional method. Let me just say that our practice has represented Spirit baptism  well,  and not so much the idea of crossing through the waters or death and resurrection.

Alright, despite the difference in the kinds of water, there are still –

Clear connections between water baptism and Spirit baptism

First, both have the core concept of baptism. The root word (βαπτω) means to “dip in liquid” (BDAG). I don’t think it’s helpful to argue about exactly how this happens. But I do think there was a lot of water involved. I think the best word that covers the full range of baptism language (figurative and literal) is “inundation” which means to cover with a flood, to overflow, to overwhelm, to deluge, to engulf.

  • To be baptized in water is to be inundated with water
  • To be baptized in the Spirit is to be inundated with the Spirit

Second, they are connected in terms of timing. Remember? Just after Israel came up from their water baptism, they were filled with the Spirit so that they were moved to sing prophetic songs to the Lord (Exodus 15; Isaiah 63:11). And also, just after Jesus was water baptized the Spirit descended upon him and he had the prophetic experience of a vision (Matthew 3:16-17).

This close chronological connection is also seen in the book of Acts. For example:

  • In Acts 2 Peter links in his teaching water baptism and receiving the Spirit
  • In Acts 8 the Samaritans received the Spirit not long after their water baptism
  • In Acts 9 Paul is baptized and received the Spirit
  • In Acts 10 Cornelius and his family received the Spirit just before water baptism
  • In Acts 19 some disciples in Ephesus are baptized and received the Spirit

Although there is variation in these stories, water baptism and Spirit baptism are closely connected in time.

Why is this? It’s because the coming of the Spirit is what brings about the new life that is symbolized by water baptism. Romans 6:4 tells us that baptism has to do with walking in “newness of life.” But, as John 6:63 says, “It is the Spirit who gives life.” Now as a part of this we could talk about the fruit of the Spirit which causes us to live in a new way. And we could also talk about the gifts of the Spirit that empower us for ministry in our new life. But the point here is that it’s the Spirit that gives us the new life that baptism points to. So they are connected.

Finally, let me say a word about –

Spirit baptism and Spirit filling

In Acts 2 the disciples are Spirit baptized, but it doesn’t end there. Later, in Acts 4, in a time of need, they are once again filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:31).

So it is to be in our lives. The idea is that we receive an initial outpouring (baptism) of the Spirit in our salvation experience. Spirit “baptism” language seems to focus on this initial experience. But we are also to continue to be filled with the Spirit throughout our lives. The “filling” language can refer to the initial filling (Spirit baptism) or to subsequent fillings of the Spirit. Spirit baptism is meant to be the beginning of a life of being full of the Holy Spirit.

Let me end by asking –

Do you want to receive the Spirit?

Whether you need that first experience of the Spirit that brings new life and power, or whether you need another filling of the Spirit for refreshment and empowerment. Perhaps you are beaten down, weary and need help this morning. Wherever you are at, the promise is there for us to claim.

We saw this in John the Baptist’s words at the beginning. Let’s also hear the promise again in a different form from Jesus: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” – Luke 11:13

God wants to give us of his Spirit. As Peter says of the gift of the Spirit, “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” – Acts 2:39.

All you have to do is ask! As Jesus said, the Father gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask him – Luke 11:13.

How should we ask? The verses just before this teach us, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Luke 11:9-10). We are to be persistent and ask, search and knock.

Take God at his word. He is true to his promise. And God will give you of his Spirit in your life.

The cruciform shape of baptism

Series on baptism

We spent time last week looking at baptism and how it symbolically portrays the story of how God saves us. We got help in understanding this by looking back to several Old Testament water-crossing events, which also tell stories of salvation through water. For instance, Noah and the flood – the story of the salvation of humanity. And especially the crossing of the Red Sea – the story of Israel’s salvation from Egypt.

But my point today is that all of these stories of salvation are figures, types and foreshadowings. As I said before they are background. They look forward beyond themselves to another story; to the water crossing of all water crossings; to the story of salvation. And it is this that I want us to focus on, because this gives us further understanding into the meaning of water baptism.

Turn with me to the story of –

Jesus’ water baptism

Matthew 3:13-17 – 13Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.  14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.

John is hesitant to baptize Jesus because his baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But Jesus has no sin. So, John is saying, why should I baptize you? I need your baptism of the Spirit! But Jesus insists, because this becomes an opportunity for John to fulfill his purpose to reveal Jesus as the Messiah and for Jesus to begin his ministry as the Messiah.

16And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Here is the five-fold pattern of Jesus’ water baptism:

1. When Jesus comes to the waters, he portrays that he is leaving behind his normal life to take up his ministry and calling.

2. By going through the waters he portrays that he is (already) free from sin and the powers of evil. With us baptism pictures our being forgiven and set free. For Jesus it’s simply a testimony to his freedom and sinlessness. God confirms this when he says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” There is no sin here. He doesn’t have to be saved, he is the Savior.

3. When he comes up out of the waters the Spirit comes as a dove upon him (think Noah). This is to anoint him to fulfill his mission. And of course this is where we get the word Messiah, or Christ, both of which mean “the anointed one.”

4. When he comes up out of the waters he is revealed as the new Israel; the leader of the remnant of the people of God, that John has gathered. He is identified as God’s son, a phrase that can refer to Israel in the Old Testament (Hosea 11:1; 1 Chronicles 22:10 describes the king/Messiah in these terms). Finally, a faithful Israel has come to fulfill God’s purposes.

5. After he comes up out of the waters he goes on into the desert (like Israel) where he shows his commitment to obey God. Right? Just after this Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1).

So this is an important water crossing, but this isn’t the story we’re looking for! This is a significant story, but it, like all the others, only points ahead to the real story; to Jesus’ real baptism. No, the story of salvation that we are looking for; the water crossing of all water crossings is the cross and resurrection of Jesus. So let’s look now at –

Jesus’ death and resurrection as a baptism

  • In Mark 10:38, speaking of his death Jesus says, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” He calls his death a baptism.
  • In Luke 12:50, again, speaking of his death, he says,  “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” (Luke 9:31 – “exodus”)
  • In a similar vein, in Matthew 12:39-40 Jesus says his death will be like Jonah’s water crossing. The story of Jonah is a classic water crossing. And Jesus makes this connection.

That he would use this “waters,” “baptism” language should not surprise us, when we think of what the waters mean: distress, testing, judgment, death. This certainly fits his cross experience.

Let’s look briefly now at Jesus’ death and resurrection as a water crossing:

  • The waters – Satan, judgment & Death – overtook Jesus, killing him. He was dead.
  • But God acted. These powers had no right to touch Jesus, he was sinless. So God intervened on behalf of the innocent Jesus.

1. Jesus leaves behind this world, the old creation that is passing away.

2. Jesus is set free from the powers of judgment and death; he passes through the waters.

3. Jesus is resurrected to new life by the Spirit. He has a new resurrection body.

4. Jesus is the beginning of a new humanity. The first born from the dead and the first fruits of many more to come (1 Corinthians 15:22-23; Colossians 1:18.)

5. Jesus rules in righteousness at the right hand of God. He works to subject the powers, until finally death is overcome. And then he will hand the kingdom over to God (1 Corinthians 15:24-28).

Now let’s make the connection between –

Jesus’ cross baptism and water baptism

Again, my point in all of this is to show that Jesus’ cross baptism is not just another water crossing, it is the water crossing of all water crossings. And as such it affects how we think about Christian water baptism. Baptism now has a cruciform shape. It is cross shaped.

This shows up clearly in Paul. When Paul talks about Christian water baptism, it is always in terms of Jesus’ death and resurrection (In fact, Jesus’ water baptism is nowhere referenced in relation to our Christian water baptism).

Romans 6:2-7 – “How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.”

Let me show you two ways that water baptism is cruciform from this passage. Water baptism symbolically portrays our death and resurrection. Or in other words the five themes of water baptism can be summarized by the cruciform rubric of death and resurrection.

 Let’s look at this in our text. The theme of  1. leaving behind/repentance matches – “we who died to sin” – v. 2. The theme of 2. set free/forgiven lines up with – “For one who has died has been set free from sin” – v. 7. This is about our death to the old.

The next three themes have to with resurrection to new life. 3. New life, 4. part of a new people and 5. a new way of living in obedience to God is described by Paul in the phrase – “newness of life” – v. 4. As well as the various references to resurrection.

So the five themes are cruciform. To pass through the waters, put simply, is to die and then be raised to new life.

Second, water baptism symbolically portrays our dying and rising with Jesus. First, we go with him through his death:

  • “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death” – v. 4
  • “We know that our old self was crucified with him” – v. 6

 Then we are raised to new life with him:

  • Just as Christ was raised from the dead . . . we too” are raised – v. 4
  • We are “united with him in a resurrection like his” – v. 5

With regard to the symbolic meaning of baptism, we are not just going through the waters; we are going through the waters of Jesus’ cross baptism. In our water baptism we reenact, as it were, Jesus’ cross baptism.

What does it all mean?

It means that baptism is a cruciform marker. Those who receive it are marked by the cross of Jesus. It’s as if it is branded on our forehead. And we are now to live cruciform lives.

This is a life that is characterized by our dying and being raised. We die to sin and to the world and are empowered to live new lives of righteousness by the Spirit. We deny ourselves; our comfort our self-centeredness and are empowered to love others by the Spirit. We lay down our lives for others and we find true life in God.

Jesus’ story is now our story, and we are to live this way every day, on his behalf and for those who don’t know him. And we do this until we literally die and then when Jesus returns we are literally resurrected.

This is what our baptism was about. And that is what our lives are to be about.