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Jesus heals a man who can’t hear or speak well. Mark 7:32-37

The literary structure of Mark 7:32-37

We’re back in the Gospel of Mark today looking at 7:32-37 and how Jesus heals a man who can’t hear or speak well. (This is one of three stories in Mark that are not a part of any other Gospel.)

Last time we saw how Jesus went into the region of Tyre and Sidon – a Gentile area – and he did so to get away from the conflict and crowds in Galilee. Well, today he continues on his –

Trip through Gentile territory

Mark 7 trip thru Gentile territory

On the map you can see how he left Galilee to the region of Tyre. v. 31, which comes just before our story says, “Then Jesus returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.” So he goes over 20 miles north to Sidon, and then to the South Eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, which is also a predominantly Gentile area – called the Decapolis (Although see Robert Stein, Commentary on Mark)

Which brings us to –

 

Our story

32And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him.

So this man, most likely a Gentile, can’t hear. And he also has a speech impediment. The word used here literally means “to speak with difficulty,” which could just mean that he’s been deaf from birth and so has trouble speaking.

How did these people know about Jesus? Well, it could be from word of mouth, like with the Syrophoenician woman who had heard about Jesus far away from Galilee. But also remember that when Jesus cast out the Legion of demons from a man, from this area, he said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And Mark goes on, “And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.” (Mark 5:19-20) Perhaps this is why Jesus is known in this region.

They want Jesus to touch this man, which means heal him (Mark 5:23; 8:22). And they’re imploring Jesus to do this.

 33And taking him aside from the crowd privately . . .

Now there’s a crowd in a Gentile area, not just in Galilee! Jesus’ reputation is spreading. But Jesus doesn’t want to draw a lot of attention to himself; he’s trying to get away from crowds. So he goes to a more private place with the man and presumably those who brought him to be healed.

. . . he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue.

This is one of the most detailed descriptions of how Jesus went about healing someone, although there’s no reason to think he did the same things each time.

Here Jesus touches the body parts that need healing. He puts his finger into his ears and apparently he spits on his finger and then touches it to the man’s tongue. Jesus uses his saliva here and in two other places (Mark 8:23, John 9:6). Now this strikes most of us, I would think, as pretty gross! But some ancients thought that saliva had healing properties, especially from great people.

Is Jesus showing the deaf man, through motions, what he’s doing – seeking to heal his ears and tongue? A kind of sign language? Maybe.

34And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”

Jesus is praying and the sigh seems to be a part of this prayer (Romans 8:26), perhaps expressing his compassion for the man and his suffering and the intensity of his prayer.

And then Jesus commands that the body parts function. The command is an Aramaic word, the common language of the day for Jews and others in this region.

35And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

His ears are immediately opened in response to Jesus’ command. And here we see that he could speak, but not clearly. But now his tongue is released. The imagery is that of a tongue that is bound in place. The phrase can also be translated, “the chain of his tongue was loosed.”

36And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.

The charge to silence here is quite similar to Mark 1:44-45. Jesus doesn’t want to overwhelmed by crowds. He can’t fulfill his mission if all he does is heal everyone’s needs day and night.

He charges the man and his companions, apparently several times. Think how hard it would be for the friends to stay quiet about this. And then think how hard it would be for the man, who’s not only healed, but can now, for the first time speak clearly! Yet Jesus wants him to stay quiet!

Well, they do disobey, but you can be sympathetic as to why – Jesus’ greatness seems to demand it. The word “proclaimed” is a positive word throughout this gospel referring to proclaiming the good news of the salvation Jesus brings – which is what they’re doing.

37And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

 Jesus’ power amazes them – “they were astonished beyond measure.” What they just witnessed is not a common event. It’s extraordinary and it produces over the top amazement on their part.

There are two echoes of the Old Testament in this verse. First, the phrase “he has done all things well,” alludes to what Israel said about King David in his early reign in 2 Samuel 3:36 – “all things the king did pleased all the people.” Jesus is, of course, David’s descendant and his promised son; the Messiah.

The second echo comes from the last phrase “he even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” This is a reference to Isaiah 35:5-6 which says, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” This passage speaks of God’s salvation of Israel, promised at the time of the exile, now coming to pass in Jesus – as this healing indicates – for a man who was deaf and mute is healed, just as predicted.

(This connection is confirmed in that the word used for “speech impediment” in v. 32 is only used in this verse in all the New Testament. And it is used only one time in all the Greek Old Testament (LXX) in Isaiah 35:6. Mark wants us to get the point.)

Let’s end with –

The take home

-for us today. In as much as this healing is a sign, that is, it points to truths beyond just the physical healing itself:

1. It tells us who Jesus is. Once again Jesus is the anointed one, the reference to 2 Samuel 3:36 and Jesus as the Son of David, come to fulfill the promises of God’s salvation, here from Isaiah 35:5-6.

2. It also symbolically portrays that Gentile ears can be opened to hear the good news and their tongues loosened to glorify God, just as with the Jews. (Alan Culpepper, Commentary on Mark, p. 243). This looks forward to what will be after Jesus is raised from the dead.

And in general we learn again that 3. Nothing is too difficult for Jesus. He can heal any condition. He can deal with any situation, even what we think is impossible. We too can be “astonished beyond measure.” Jesus still does all things well, as he works salvation and blessing in our lives.

How to overcome in times of suffering: The inner cross

We’re finishing up our series on Christians and suffering today. Last time we looked at three kinds of suffering we go through as Christians.

  • First, there’s the lowliness and suffering that comes from living in a fallen and sinful world – sickness, brokenness, tragedies and death.
  • Second there’s the lowliness and suffering we freely choose, in that we lower ourselves to love and serve others.
  • And finally there’s the lowliness and suffering that comes our way because of our connection to Jesus – rejection and persecution.

Anytime we go through these kinds of suffering it unleashes a struggle within us. Will we remain faithful to God? Will we take the easy way out of the test? Will we lay down our cross to find relief?

This struggle is a part of what I’m calling the inner cross. And my message today is this – the secret to being victorious in our times of suffering is to overcome by the Spirit in the realm of the inner cross.

First we look at –

Jesus’ inner cross: Mark 14:32-42

When Jesus faced his greatest trial – the cross – he experienced the inner turmoil of it all. Jesus was fully human and as he said to the disciples about humanity, “the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38).

Mark tells us, “And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.’” (Mark 14:33-34). Jesus doesn’t want to die, and certainly not the shameful death of a criminal or blasphemer on a cross (Hebrew 12:2).

Three times he prayed for deliverance. This, even though he knew it was God’s will for him to go to the cross. (He told his disciples this three times – Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). But this is a final discernment. Is there not some other way, God? “And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me.’” (Mark 14:35-36). (See also Hebrews 5:7-8)

During these times of prayer he received help from the Spirit. As he said, “the Spirit indeed is willing” (Mark 14:38). The word “willing” can also be translated as “eager to be of service” or “ready.”

We see the evidence of the Spirit’s enablement in two ways: 1) Jesus prayed, “not what I will, but what you (Father God) will” (Mark 14:36). He submits his heart to the Father. And then 2) He rose up from prayer to do God’s will. He said, “The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” (Mark 14:41-42). And he then went to the cross.

By the power of the Spirit Jesus crucified his human desire to live and be honored. He denied himself and took up his cross (Mark 8:34). He received strength to endure arrest, slander, shame, torture, crucifixion and death.

So there’s a death within before there’s a death without. He finds victory by the Spirit at Gethsemane, which allows him to find victory in his circumstances of suffering at Golgotha.

Paul’s teaching on the inner cross – Romans 8:1-17

There are several points of contact between Paul’s teaching here and the story we’ve just looked at. Paul seems to have Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane in the background as he teaches. 1) There’s the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit (Romans 8:5-8). 2) He talks about prayer to “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15). 3) There’s a theme of suffering (Romans 8:17; also 18-39). 4) And he highlights how the Spirit enables us to overcome (Romans 8:3-4, 13). We’ll focus on this last theme.

Because Jesus suffered for us and overcame, we receive the benefits of God’s salvation. After presenting in Romans 7 the futility of trying to obey God from the heart without the Spirit, Paul describes this salvation. We are forgiven – “there is now no more condemnation” (Romans 8:1). And we receive the Spirit of God into our lives (Romans 8:9, 15-16).

And because of our new relationship with God and the presence of the Spirit within in us we are enabled to fulfill “the righteous requirement of the law” (Romans 8:4). We are empowered to do God’s will. And we can do this because we “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4).

More specifically, we are enabled to crucify the desires of the flesh by the SpiritPaul says, “So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:12-13).

Paul is saying here that by the power of the Spirit within us, we are strengthened to be able to crucify our own desires that oppose God’s way. “By the Spirit we put to death” these desires and thus any deeds that would come from these desires. As he says in Galatians 5:16, “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”

Again, the Spirit is key. And again the inner cross – putting to death our wrong desires by the Spirit – is the key to walking faithfully before God in our times of suffering.

Let’s look at –

How this works

When we’re in a time of testing and suffering, and we’ve discerned that it’s God’s will for us to go through this, and we’re struggling within – so that “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Galatians 5:17), like Jesus – we can call out to God our Father for help.

And in prayer we can receive encouragement and strength from the Spirit. Without the Spirit we would easily cave in. The desires of our flesh want to avoid suffering. The flesh wants the easy way out, it wants comfort and security. Or it leads us to just give up.

But the Spirit strengthens us to say no to the desires of our flesh. And when we say no a crucifixion takes place. There’s a death within to our own desires, so that we don’t act on these unfaithful desires of our flesh. By the Spirit we put them to death (Colossians 3:5). Our “old person” (Romans 6:6) dies a little bit more. This is the inner cross.

Also, there’s a resurrection within. The new person God is creating us to be is strengthened to walk in the path God has for us. We are raised to new life within so that we can walk in newness of life without.

Just as Jesus had to gain the victory at Gethsemane before he could gain the victory at Golgotha, so it is with us. We must prevail in the realm of the inner cross by the Spirit, before we will prevail in our lowliness and suffering.

Let me end with –

A word of encouragement

 1. We’ve been given all that we need to overcome by God’s grace. As 2 Peter 1:3 says, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” We’re not left to our own resources. We rely on God’s Spirit and power. As Paul says in talking about suffering, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” – Romans 8:37.

2. Even if we fail, God’s grace is sufficient. It’s true, as James tells us, “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). We will not always respond correctly to our times of trials and cross bearing. But as 1 John 1:9 teaches, //“if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And then we can move forward again by God’s grace.

3. God will come through on his promises. As we’ve seen, the faithful will be exalted and blessed (Matthew 23:12, Luke 6:20-26, Mark 8:35). As Romans 8:17 says, we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”

On the day of the great reversal, when the kingdom comes in its fullness, we will inherit the blessings of the kingdom and we will be lifted up by God to receive honor and glory.

Our suffering as a cross

If one way of thinking about and processing our suffering is to see it as testing, which we’ve talked about, today we look at another way of framing it – our suffering as a cross. As we saw last time, Jesus calls every believer to take up their cross and follow him. And a cross involves lowliness and suffering. Today we go into more detail, starting with –

The three stages of the way of the cross – Philippians 2:6-11

The first two stages have to do with our downward movement. In Stage 1: We lower ourselves to love and serve others. Here the lowliness and suffering is freely chosen.

We not only experience the suffering of living in a fallen, broken world, we lower ourselves further. We choose to give up our privileges and rights, and use whatever gifts and strengths we have to love and serve others. We deny ourselves and lay down our lives for others to meet their needs and lift them up (Mark 8:34; 1 John 3:16-17). To follow Jesus in this way can bring great joy, but it will also involve loss, pain and suffering.

Let’s look at the example of Jesus: He set aside his glory at the right hand of the Father to come into our world to love and serve us. Paul says in Philippians 2:6-7 – “. . . though he was in the form of God, (he) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (or clung to), but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant . . ..” As Jesus said about himself in Mark 10:45, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve . . ..”

When he walked this earth he bore our troubles and burdens (Matthew 8:17; 17:17), he suffered through conflict, long hours of ministry work and stress to serve us (Mark 3:20). He was even betrayed and deserted by those closest to him. He laid down his life for us in all these ways (John 10:11; 1 John 3:16; Mark 10:45). And he did this without the honor that was due him as God’s Son, or often without any appreciation or thanks.

Jesus knew what it was like to be lowly and suffer because of his love and service to others.

In Stage 2: We lower ourselves to accept rejection and persecution. We don’t seek this kind of suffering, it finds us. We’re mistreated by others because of our connection and service to Jesus. This can involve ridicule, shame, insults, exclusion and even death (Luke 6:22). This takes us even lower.

Here’s the example of Jesus: Paul says in Philippians 2:8, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” As Jesus said about himself in Mark 10:45, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

He accepted mockery, dishonor and torture. He also suffered within, saying in Gethsemane “my soul is sorrowful, even to the point of death” (Mark 14:34). He literally took up his cross and died on it (Mark 8:34-35). He was faithful unto death.

Jesus knew what it was like to suffer rejection and persecution and to go as low as one can go.

In Stage 3: God lifts us up. If we’re faithful in the first two stages of the way of the cross – we will experience the great reversal. God will intervene to exalt and bless us. This is how the kingdom of God works.

The example of Jesus: Paul says in Philippians 2:9-11, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” The “therefore” that begins these verses has to do with Jesus’ faithfulness in lowering himself in the first two stages of the cross. Because he did this, God has exalted and blessed him.

Hebrews 12:2 says of Jesus, “for the joy that was set before him (he) endured the cross, despising the shame.” But then it goes on to say, “and (he) is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” He lowered himself and suffered. But God vindicated and exalted him.

Now this will most definitely happen for us when Jesus returns. But it can also happen even in this life as God blesses us and lifts us up in various ways. But these experiences are only a small taste compared to what’s to come – when we experience the fullness of the power, honor, wealth and well-being that awaits us.

Next, we look at –

Two questions

– that, I think, are pretty important. 1. Is our suffering just like Jesus’? Well, his suffering is certainly an example to us and an encouragement for us (Hebrews 12:3). As we just saw, if we remain faithful we too will be blessed by God.

But his suffering is also different than ours. His suffering and death on the cross is what provides for our salvation. Our suffering can be used by God, but it doesn’t save us or anyone else. It is, rather, the proper expression of our faith, lived out in deeds. It’s not about us becoming Jesus the savior, it’s about us taking up our cross and following after Jesus the savior (Mark 8:34).

2. What about the suffering of living in a broken world? Here the suffering is what comes to everyone; the trials that are common to all people (1 Corinthians 10:13). This includes sickness, disabilities, tragic accidents – among so many other things.

Jesus himself said that each day has “its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34); and he’s talking here about everyday life stresses like obtaining food and clothing. And Jesus experienced this kind of suffering. His step-father Joseph died, apparently when he was a child. And he lived in a land that was poor and under the oppressive rule of Rome.

Although this lowliness and suffering is not due to our faith, as Christians we understand that there will be no more tears, no more death and a new creation in the end, because Jesus overcame this on the cross. The solution to all suffering is the cross.

And as Christians we should see the suffering of living in a broken world that we experience in cruciform terms. Paul does this while referencing our general human lowliness and weakness in several places (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:26-28; 2 Corinthians 4:7; 12:9) including his own lack of bodily strength and skill in public speaking (2 Corinthians 10:10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5). So although this kind of suffering isn’t unique to Christians, we view it and respond to it as a part of the way of the cross. Which is what we turn to now.

Viewing our suffering through the lens of a cross

There are many things we can do to find comfort, help and strength when we suffer. But here we’re looking at key aspects of a fundamental attitude or approach to our suffering.

1. Freely accept your suffering, whether it’s suffering that comes from our love and service to others, or from rejection and persecution, or from living in a fallen world.

Yes, pray for deliverance from suffering (Matthew 6:13, Philippians 1:19). Yes, use the means God makes available to you to overcome suffering, for instance treatment if you’re not well (1 Timothy 5:23). Yes, pray for healing. God loves to heal and he does so to glorify his name and to have mercy on us. Yes, if you can escape from persecution you are free to do so (Matthew 10:23).

And as we learn from the examples of Jesus and Paul we can even press God three times on a matter before we accept it. Jesus prayed three times to be spared the cross (Mark 14:32-42). Paul prayed three times to be spared his thorn (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). But once God said no three times, they accepted their suffering – without bitterness – and lived into it as God’s choice for them.

In the same way once we know that God wants us to go through this suffering, at least for a time, accept it and move forward knowing that God is in it.

2. In faith endure suffering knowing that it’s not the last word. It’s something we go through for now, but there’s an end and there’s great blessing in the end.

Hebrew 12:2 says, “for the joy that was set before him (Jesus) endured the cross.” The joy set before him was what was on the other side of the suffering – resurrection and blessing. In the same way Hebrews 12:1 encourages us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.”

As we saw in the three stages of the cross, after our lowliness and suffering comes resurrection and blessing. And God will come through for us just as he did for Jesus:

  • The lowly will be exalted (Matthew 23:12)
  • Those who suffer for the sake of the kingdom will be blessed (Luke 6:20-26)
  • and whoever loses their life for Jesus will truly gain their life for the world to come (Mark 8:35).

So we ought not give up no matter the pain of our suffering. Because of God’s promises we know that suffering is not the last word and so we can have hope in the midst of our suffering.

3. Our suffering helps bring about the kingdom of God. God used Jesus’ cross suffering to establish the kingdom; the great reversal. Because the powers of evil, both spiritual and human, the same ones who preside over this broken world that we suffer in – because they killed an innocent Jesus, they are judged and brought down, while he is saved, vindicated and raised up.

In the same way, although our suffering doesn’t establish our salvation, we participate in this process that Jesus has begun of bringing down the powers of evil and advancing the kingdom, until this is completed with Jesus’ return. God uses us and our suffering to advance the kingdom of God, which puts a new light on what we go through.

Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 1:26-28 – “For consider your calling, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.” Notice he’s not just saying there will be a reversal. He’s saying that God will use us to help bring about the great reversal; “to shame” and “bring to nothing” the powers of evil. God uses our lowliness and suffering to advance his kingdom.

Seeing our suffering through the lens of the cross gives us a different perspective on our suffering, and one that can sustain us to endure in the midst of it.

Suffering & following Jesus go together

Of all things Jesus used a cross to talk about following him. A cross was used for killing criminals. A cross involved great suffering; it was an excruciatingly painful way to die. And to die on a cross was shameful. Only the lowest died this way, naked, on full display to the public. He used a cross in order to communicate a key truth about Christianity – suffering and following Jesus go together.

Jesus had to take the way of the cross – lowliness, suffering and death before God raised him up and blessed him. And the same is true for us.

This comes out clearly at a crucial transition in the center of the Gospel of Mark, in chapter 8. Jesus is rightly acknowledged as the Messiah (8:29). And so he immediately begins to teach his disciples what kind of Messiah he is. And he’s clear that he takes the lowly way of suffering and is about to die on a cross (8:31).

But Peter rebuked Jesus (8:32). This can’t be right! Peter was “seeing things merely from a human point of view” (8:33 NLT). He wanted a victorious Messiah reigning in worldly power in great pomp and circumstance.

And later James and John, the rest of Jesus’ inner circle, showed they were in the same place. In chapter 10 they saw the Messiah as one who is served, not one who serves; as one who lords it over others, not one who lays down his life (10:42-45). And they wanted the two highest seats next to Jesus in his earthly glory.

All three of Jesus’ closest disciples had their hearts set, not on the way of the cross – but on what we can call – the way of glory. The way of glory emphasizes this world and what it has to offer. It’s about moving up and gaining what you can of power, honor, wealth and comfort.

But not only did Jesus take the way of the cross, he calls any who follow him to do the same. As he said after rebuking Peter, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Jesus’ life of lowliness, self-denial and suffering is our model. Just as Jesus’ life was cruciform, our lives are to be cross shaped as well; marked by lowliness, self-denial and suffering. Suffering and following Jesus go together.

Now, our Christian lives are not just about suffering. Perhaps it’s helpful to talk about –

Three types of Christianity

 Before I noted the ‘already – not yet’ character of the kingdom of God; how God’s salvation has come – but it’s not yet all the way here. This idea helps us to spell out these three types.

1. “Not yet” Christianity. In this view our current lives are only about lowliness and suffering. God gives us the grace of his forgiveness, but little changes in us, nor does God work through us in powerful ways. (This view minimizes discipleship because we are not really able to follow Jesus.)

On the “already – not yet” scale, there’s very little of the kingdom here now and almost everything is yet to come. This is, I believe, an anemic form of Christianity.

And then there’s 2. “Already” Christianity. God’s kingdom has come in power; it’s here, except for the resurrection. And the kingdom is not about suffering but about earthly power, honor, wealth and comfort.It includes these things now.

On the “already – not yet” scale, almost all of the kingdom is here now and only a little is yet to come. This is a Christianity of glory.

  • The “super apostles” who boasted of their pedigree and gifts and exalted themselves over others are an example of this view (2 Corinthians 10-12).
  • Another example is when Christians seek to run the world now through the State and politics, as if their nation was the kingdom of God. Jesus will rule the world, but not until he returns. (This view minimizes discipleship because we have to have a low enough ethic to run the world, which involves an eye for an eye.)
  • Another illustration is when Christians teach that Jesus is the one who gives us the ‘American dream.’ God wants us to always have health and wealth here and now.

Instead of lowliness, this emphasizes being lifted up now.

If the first view overemphasizes our current lowliness and suffering, and the second overemphasizes our current freedom from lowliness and suffering, the final view presents the right balance.

3. “Already and not yet” ChristianityYes, this life will have its share of lowliness and suffering, because suffering and following Jesus go together. But it’s also true that the Spirit is working in and through us in powerful ways to make the kingdom real now. Yes, this life is not where we should seek out power, honor, wealth and comfort, but God gives us victory in all things.

On the “already – not yet” scale, this is in the middle. Much of the kingdom is here, but much is yet to come for sure. And just to be clear, what I’m saying is that this is New Testament Christianity.

Jesus is our model right? He calls us to follow him. And no one was more lowly or suffered like Jesus. But also no one was as full of the power of the Spirit to do great things for the kingdom as he.

We have to understand that lowliness and suffering, and the power of the Spirit go hand in hand. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:7 – “We have this treasure (the kingdom or the presence of the Spirit) in jars of clay (our weak, broken bodies), to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” Here we see weakness and surpassing power together in us at the same time. God said to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9 – “My grace (in lowliness and suffering) is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” There is weakness and there is God’s power in our lives, not one or the other.

The fullness of power, honor, wealth and well-being come when the fullness of the kingdom comes. And it comes from God, not people. And it comes precisely to those who are now lowly, deny themselves and suffer for the kingdom. (This view maximizes discipleship. We are called to take up our cross and the Spirit empowers us to do just this. Lowliness and power are held in balance.)

Jesus talks in several places about how –

A great reversal is coming

Those who are high and exalted now, will be lowered and those who are low now, will be exalted. For instance in Matthew 23:12 he says – “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled,and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Those who lift themselves up seeking power, honor, wealth and comfort will be humbled, that is, God will bring them low. But whoever is lowly now for the sake of the kingdom, God will lift up on that day.

This reversal is stated in very stark terms in the beatitudes of Luke 6:20-26. Just to take one example, Blessed are you who are poor; for yours is the kingdom of God.”(v. 20). And“woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (v. 24) Jesus tells us that those who compromise their faith to seek wealth (and also food, entertainment and reputation) will not enter the kingdom. But those who are lowly and suffer for faithfulness to the kingdom, that is, they experience poverty for this (and also hunger, weeping and slander) these faithful ones will enter the fullness of the kingdom.

In Mark 8:35 Jesus said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” If we seek to save, preserve or focus on our life in this world, we will lose our life. But if we give up everything, deny ourselves and suffer for Jesus (Mark 8:34) we will find our lives in the fullness of the kingdom.

It is those who now follow Jesus in the way of the cross in lowliness, self-denial and suffering who will experience the promises of exaltation and blessing on that day.

Let me end with –

Some things to remember about suffering

 We shouldn’t glorify it. Suffering is terrible and without our faith in God it can crush and destroy us. Jesus didn’t seek the suffering of the cross, but rather prayed to avoid it (Mark 14:36). And Hebrews 12:2 tells us that although Jesus “endured the cross” he also “despised the shame.”

The end we all want is peace and well-being, when there will be no more suffering or tears. We’re able to rejoice in suffering, not because we enjoy it. No, this would be a sign of sickness. We can rejoice in suffering because it demonstrates that the kingdom is ours (Matthew 5:10).

The way of the cross is foolishness to the flesh and the world. As Paul said, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing . . ..” (1 Corinthians 1:18a). It looks like a good way to miss out on all that this life has to offer. “Lower yourself and accept suffering and then trust God to lift you up? And most of this won’t take place until the final day? That’s crazy!”

  • Just as the disciples – Peter, James and John didn’t understand it and Peter tried to talk Jesus out of it, so we struggle with it today.
  • Just as the powers of this world didn’t understand it when they “crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8) so they don’t now.

Despite this, the way of the cross is how God brings about his purposes in this world. It is folly to the world, but as the rest of 1 Corinthians 1:18 says, “but to us who are being saved the word of the cross is the power of God.” The wisdom of this world is all about the way of glory – seek and strive for what you can get in this life; lift yourself up to obtain power, honor, wealth and well-being.

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are . . ..” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28). This is God’s “secret and hidden wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:7). This is how God overthrows evil and establishes his kingdom in this world.

Our suffering as testing

This morning I want to lay out for you a framework for thinking about and processing emotionally and spiritually what’s going on when we suffer; when we experience distress and pain in our lives. This framework is the scriptural teaching on testing and how it works.

I’m using the word “testing,” but this word (πειρασμός/peirasmos) can also be translated as “trials” or “temptation.” And I’m also working with the idea of God’s “discipline” of his children.

Two things up front. Testing usually involves difficult situations of suffering, although we can also be tested by good times and abundance (Deuteronomy 6:10-12). But we’re focused on suffering.

And second, tests are not just about God disciplining us for our failures, although this does happen (1 Corinthians 11:30-32). But God also disciplines and tests us when we’ve done nothing wrong. Job was tested, but not because of his sin (Job 1:1). Jesus was tested, but was sinless (Matthew 4:1-11; the cross). As I said before, just because we’re suffering doesn’t mean that we’ve done something wrong.

Alright, let’s look at –

The parties involved in testing

1. God allows us to be tested. This is made clear in the Lord’s prayer, where Jesus taught us to pray, “lead us not into testing” (Luke 11:4). If God didn’t lead us into testing, there would be no need to ask him not to do this.

And, of course, there are numerous examples of God testing people in Scripture, as we have seen:

  • God tested Job (Job 1-2
  • God tested Abraham when he asked him to sacrifice Isaac, the child of promise (Genesis 22)
  • And God tested the Israelites in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:2)

With regard to Christians in the New Testament:

  • Jesus teaches that each day has “its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34)
  • He said, “in the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33)
  • We will experience “trials of various kinds” (James 1:2)

Even though God allows us to be tested, it’s important to remember that God allows it for our own good. As Hebrews 12:10 says, “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.” God wants us to grow and become more and more like Christ. God is training us in righteousness, just like an elite athlete is always being pushed by her coaches to get better through working out.

It may be hard for us to understand, but despite God’s great love and compassion for us – and he doesn’t enjoy watching us suffer – God is more concerned about our growth than our comfort, security or even our success in life and ministry. God is giving us his tough love. As Hebrews 12:6 says, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves.”

Now, we think we know what’s good for us, and in our view what’s good equals no suffering. But God knows what’s truly good for us and sometimes it does involve undergoing suffering.

Although God allows us to be tested, 2. It’s actually Satan who tests us through his agents.

One of his names in Scripture is “the tester” (Mark 1:13). This is a part of his function in the order of God, to test and then to punish those who sin (Hebrews 2:14). He seeks permission from God to test us. We see this in Job 1-2 and Jesus tells Peter that Satan has asked to sift him and the other disciples like wheat in Luke 22:31. His goal is to cause us to stumble and sin so that he can accuse and punish us (Zechariah 3:1; Revelation 12:10).

So, God wants us to grow, but Satan wants us to be destroyed.

And finally 3. Christians are the ones who undergo testing.

In terms of our humanity two things need to be pointed out. First, there is “the flesh.” This refers to our human weakness. As Jesus said in Gethsemane – “the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). Now, this is not something alien in us; another nature. The flesh is simply who we are apart from God. It refers to our own human desires, longings and fears.

And when we are put under pressure, the flesh makes us vulnerable to give in and take another way than God’s way. (And this is the real source of our test, not God or Satan. Without our weakness we would never be tempted to sin. This is the point of James 1:13-14).

Second, there is our heart. This is the seat of our choice or will. We are not simply our fears and desires. There is more to us than that. And in a test we choose which way we will go.

And also God doesn’t leave us alone. As Christians the Spirit dwells within us and helps us in times of testing. As Jesus said in his greatest time of trial, “the flesh is weak,” but “the Spirit indeed is willing” (Mark 14:38). The Spirit pushes us forward and gives us strength in our times of weakness.

How testing works

 We are put into difficult situations, most of which involve suffering. Here are some examples:

  • When you don’t have enough to eat, will you still trust and obey God? (Exodus 16; Deuteronomy 8:2)
  • When tragedy strikes, will you curse God? (Job)
  • When an opportunity for sexual immorality occurs, will you take it? (Numbers 25; 1 Corinthians 7:5; 10:8)
  • When God asks you to do something that’s very hard, will you sacrifice for him? (Genesis 22)
  • When you face the loss of comfort, reputation or even your life is threatened because of your commitment to Jesus, will you deny him or compromise to avoid this? (Luke 8:13; 1 Peter 4:12)

These difficult situations provoke an inner struggle within us. The trial we are going through puts pressure on us. Our flesh wants us to take the easy way out when God is calling us to take the hard way of righteousness, self-control and self-sacrifice.

Our flesh doesn’t like difficulty and suffering and Satan appeals to this weakness. But the Spirit helps us. The Spirit leads us to do what’s right. So our flesh pulls one way and the Spirit pulls another. As Paul says in Galatians 5:17 – “what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other . . ..”

Which leads us to the point of testing, we have to choose. God wants to know what’s in our heart (Deuteronomy 8:2). And this becomes evident in our actions (Matthew 7:20). Will we trust and obey God when it’s really hard or will we take the easy way out? Will we stay true to God or will we be unfaithful?

Finally –

Some things to remember in times of testing

Our testing and suffering is part of a bigger cosmic struggle; a spiritual battle that is going on in the world. 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.”

So our faithfulness in times of testing and suffering matters not just for ourselves, but for God’s larger purpose in the redemption of his creation. We want God’s kingdom to advance.

Also, we can have joy even in testing and suffering. I will mention this several times as we talk about suffering, because we need to hear it.

First, we can have joy because God is working in us. As James 1:2, 4 says, “count it all joy.” God is working in us that we may be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” And second, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:17, “this slight, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”

We can affirm this, by faith, even when we can see no possible way that what we are going through could bring about any good in our lives or in the lives of others. We will not understand or be able to explain all of our suffering. That all things work together for our good (Romans 8:28) is in God’s hands and that may well be beyond what we will ever see or experience in this life. Our joy is based on our faith that God is nevertheless working and his promises are true.

Finally, although we are told that we will be tested in various ways we can pray to be spared testing. Just as Satan comes before God to seek permission to test us, we can come before God and ask, “lead us not into testing, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13). Jesus is encouraging us to seek to be spared. Why aren’t we praying this all the time!

Our reasoning can be articulated in the terms of the first two petitions of the Lord’s prayer. “God we are weak. Have mercy. If we fail you, we will bring dishonor to your name and your kingdom will be thwarted.” So please spare us.

But ultimately these same two petitions trump the last petition to be spared. Jesus prayed to be spared testing in Gethsemane when he prayed, “remove this cup from me” (Mark 14:36).

  • But he also prayed, “Father, glorify your name” in John 12:28, that is the first petition, “hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9).
  • And he prayed “not what I will but what you will” (Mark 14:36) that is the second petition, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

And like with Jesus, when God does not spare us, we need to move forward focusing on bringing honor to God’s name and doing God’s will in our time of testing and suffering.

Sin and human suffering

I shared a few months back on the topic of God and our suffering and I want to pick up on this theme again this morning – this time with a focus on the role of sin in our human suffering.

There are different understandings of where suffering comes from:

  • For instance, some say it’s only in our minds and if we can just get our minds to think straight that will solve the problem (Christian Science).
  • Others say that we suffer because of karma. That is, you get what you deserve in this life, in part, based on what you did in your former life (Hinduism).
  • Others say that the forces of good and evil are equal and locked in a never ending fight which causes us to suffer (Dualism).

But as Christians we confess that –

1. Human suffering and death are rooted in sin

We learn from Scripture that the sin of Adam and Eve brought suffering and death (Genesis 3). Paul tells us that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin” (Romans 5:12).

Scripture also teaches that we all sin, so we are all a part of the problem (Romans 3:23). And we are also taught that all who sin die, so we all experience the suffering that sin brings (Romans 6:23; James 1:15).

But not only this sin has opened the door for powerful forces of evil to rule this world, so that Satan is now called “the god of this world” in 2 Corinthians 4:4 (John 12:31; 1 John 5:19). And even the non-human creation is disordered and broken due to sin as we read in Romans 8:20-22.

So suffering and death are symptoms of sin’s work and presence in the creation and in our lives.

2. But how sin and suffering are connected in our individual lives is complicated

How many times have you asked, “Why am I going through this suffering?” “What did I do?” We often think, “If I do good I shouldn’t suffer. It’s only when I do bad that I should suffer.” We think life in this world should be fair. But this isn’t how the fallen world works.

It can be true that when you sin, you will suffer immediate and specific consequences for itProverbs 10:4 tells us that “a slack hand causes poverty . . ..” If you don’t work, you will suffer lack. As a general rule, there are consequences. In Acts 5:1-11 God immediately judged Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit. And in 1 Corinthians 11:29-32 those who abused the Lord’s supper experienced sickness and death as a specific judgment from God for what they did. (See also John 5:14)

But not always!!! Yes, you reap what you sow (Galatians 6:7) but you may not experience the consequences or full consequences of your sin until the final judgment.

So there’s no automatic one-to-one correlation between your sin and your specific suffering in this life. There might be at times, but more often than not, I think, there isn’t.

Scripture talks about this when it asks, “Why do the wicked prosper?” (i.e. Psalm 73:3; Jeremiah 12:1). And we all know of people who are notoriously evil who live the good life and those who are relatively innocent who suffer greatly.

Here are some examples of the latter from Scripture:

  • Joseph suffered due to the sin of his brothers, who sold him into slavery and also due to Potiphar’s wife who falsely accused him of sexual assault, which got him thrown into prison (Genesis 37-40)
  • Job’s suffering was terrible, but God specifically said it was not due to his sin. God described him as “a blameless and upright man” in Job 1:8
  • Jesus said of the man born blind, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).
  • And of course, Jesus, the sinless one, was murdered on the cross.

Luke 13:1-5 says, “There were some present at that very time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’”

Jesus does not accept that much sin brings much suffering. There’s no one-to-one correlation between our sin and our suffering in this life.

As Ecclesiastes 9:11 teaches us, life isn’t fair. “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.”

Rather, we are all caught in a complex web of sin where our actions affect each other, sometimes in unpredictable ways. So even though our sin might not cause us specific suffering, it can cause others to suffer. For instance the drunk driver who walks away unharmed from an accident, but in the other car several people are killed. And in just the same way the sins of others can cause us to suffer

Think about it we’re all affected by Adam and Eve’s sin. We are born into a world full of sin and suffering. As I said before, Potiphar’s wife sinned, but it was Joseph who went to jail (Genesis 39). And if someone commits adultery, many people’s lives are wounded, not just those guilty of the sin. We have to acknowledge that we have all have sinned in ways that have damaged others and in turn we have suffered because of the sins of others.

3. But there’s hope!

Suffering is real. It’s not an illusion. But it isn’t linked to an endless cycle of karma and reincarnation. Nor is it woven into the fabric of the way things are. And because this is true, God can bring an end to suffering. God is able to overcome it.

In the present, God can use suffering to accomplish his purposes. As Hebrews 12:11 says, “For the moment all discipline (or times of difficulty and suffering) seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

God can transform suffering to bring about his will. For instance, God used Joseph’s suffering. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:4-5). His brothers did evil, but God brought good out of it. In like manner, God used Jesus’ suffering to bring us salvation.

And the salvation that God brings about through Jesus will bring an end to suffering. It’s hard to even know what life would be like without sin and suffering, but we have a portrait painted for us in Isaiah 25:6-8. “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces . . ..”

On that day, we will say, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:54-55, referring back to Isaiah 23, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Suffering is not the final word. Sin, suffering and death will be no more.

4. Victory in the midst of our current suffering

Suffering will end, but until then we will still suffer in various ways. We live in the time of the “already and not yet.” The kingdom of God has come, but it’s not yet all the way here; redemption has come, but it’s not yet all the way here. We have the reality of salvation – the forgiveness of our sins and new life by the Spirit of God. But not the fullness of it. This comes when Jesus returns, when evil is defeated and when all things are made new, including our bodies.

Until then Christians suffer the same kinds of things everyone else does. Paul says in 1 Corinthian 10:13 that “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone” (NRSV). And Christians will also suffer in ways that are not “common” to all people – persecution for our faith.

We must beware of teachings that diminish the ‘already’ of salvation, for instance that we don’t have God’s power working in and through us now. And we must beware of teachings that exaggerate the ‘already’ of salvation, for instance that we need not suffer now because we are saved. One version of this is the so-called health and wealth gospel. Such things await the fullness of the kingdom.

Even though suffering will continue for now, Christians can experience victory in our suffering. Paul says in Romans 8:35-37, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Since we know that God can use our suffering for good and we have hope for a future without suffering, we can have joy by the power of the Holy Spirit in the midst of our suffering (James 1:2-4, Matthew 5:11-12, Romans 5:3-5).

Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. Mark 7:24-31

The literary structure of Mark 7:24-32

We’re back in the gospel of Mark, looking at the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman in chapter 7:24-31.

Last week Jesus discussed with the Pharisees and his disciples the topic of what truly defiles someone – not extra Scriptural rules of ritual impurity, but the moral impurity of our hearts. In this story Jesus is in a land that’s unclean, dealing with a woman who was considered unclean and he casts out an unclean spirit from her daughter.

Let’s first look at –

The story

24And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon.

Jesus leaves where he has been in Galilee and goes north into new territory, somewhere around the cities of Tyre and Sidon.

Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman A

This would have been the southern part of the Roman province of Syria or what we call today Lebanon (ancient Syrophoenicia).

And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know . . .

It looks like Jesus is once again looking for some solitude and rest. He’s been involved in heavy ministry for a time now – healing, teaching and having to argue with opponents. So perhaps he thought that in this Gentile area he could take a break. He wouldn’t be known here. There wouldn’t be mobs of people clamoring after him.

. . . yet he could not be hidden.25But immediately a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet.

Jesus was found out!

Some from this area had traveled to Galilee to receive ministry from Jesus, as we saw in chapter 3 (v. 8), including casting out demons (v. 11). Perhaps they spread the word when they went home and now it has gotten out that Jesus is in their area.

In any case, this unnamed woman finds Jesus and falls down at his feet. Her daughter is demon possessed. We aren’t given any more details about how this manifested itself, physically or mentally. The focus of the story isn’t really the daughter, it’s on the mother and Jesus.

26Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth.

According to the way things were at this time, she had three strikes against her:

  1. She was a woman and social contact with a man who was not a part of her family could be seen as scandalous
  2. She was a Gentile, not a Jew; not a part of God’s people
  3. She was a Syrophoenician, from a people who were bitter enemies of the Jews.

But none of these obstacles stopped her.

And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.

“She begged” can also be translated as “she kept begging.”

And according to Matthew’s version of this story it was so persistent and thus annoying that the disciples ended up begging Jesus to send her away (Matthew 15:23). This is quite the scene with everybody begging Jesus. Not very restful!

Jesus responds to the woman with a parable.

27And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

Jesus is drawing on common sense experience. Everyone knows that the children are fed first, and then the dogs are fed. The application is that Jesus is focused on the Jews, God’s chosen ones who have waited for God’s promises to be fulfilled. This is what his ministry is about (Matthew 15:24). Focused ministry to the Gentiles will come later.

Now, this parable has been taken in the wrong way and it has upset some people. But Jesus is not saying that Gentiles are dogs. There’s little or no evidence that this was a common way that Jews spoke of Gentiles (Mark Nanos – Paul’s Reversal, 2008). And besides, Jesus uses the word for “dog” that means pets or puppies (and this is how the woman takes it, house pets – v. 28).

The point is not a difference in kind – Jews are children and Gentiles are dogs. The point is a difference in timing, first the Jews, then others. This is made clear by the word “first,” a chronological marker. This is what Paul meant, when he said in Romans 1:16 that he preaches the gospel “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

[Jesus has ministered to Gentiles already. But this is the only recorded story of Jesus helping someone outside the boundaries of traditional Israel. Perhaps this is why he raises this issue. There are some parallels with Elijah’s healing of a Gentile woman’s son (1 Kings 17:8-24)]

28But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

First, notice that she addresses him as “Lord.” This is the only time someone does this in Mark’s gospel and it shows her understanding of who Jesus is.

And then she shows her intelligence and wit. She gets his parable, which the disciples usually do not. And then she goes on to make her own point. Even though the dogs eat later, sometimes the children drop crumbs and thus the dogs eat at the same time as the children. So based on Jesus’ own parable – it should be alright for her not to have to wait, but to receive some bread even now.

This woman reframed the discussion is such a way that allowed Jesus’ concerns to be acknowledged, but also allowed her to receive her request.

  • She isn’t asking for Jesus to neglect Israel, or to take anything away from them.
  • She’s just saying, “Since you’re already here in Gentile territory, why not a crumb?”

29And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.”

Jesus, the one who always bests his opponents in argument, is here bested by her.

Her statement shows her humility. She accepted her place as not-yet one of the elect; and not-yet the focus of Jesus’ ministry. And her statement demonstrates her bold and persistent faith. She did not allow Jesus’ “no” to stop her. But continued to make the case for her daughter.

In response to this humility and faith, Jesus readily healed her daughter, and that from a distance. (Perhaps having to do with concern about purity with entering a Gentile home).

v. 30 confirms the miracle –

30And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.

 Our story ends with v. 31 –

31Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.

What do we learn from this story?

What about us?

1 . Be open to opportunities to minister to others. It wasn’t Jesus’ timing to minister to her. He was trying to get away from people and crowds, so he could rest. What does he do when he’s found out? He allowed his privacy to be invaded; he gave up some of his time of rest.

And we need to be open to this as well. You have one thing scheduled, and it’s a good thing. But someone comes along who needs help. Be open to this.

Also, it wasn’t Jesus’ focus to help her. God sent him to minister to the people of Israel (Matthew 15:24). She’s not a part of Israel. What does Jesus do? He raised the issue with her, but then he responded when he saw her humility and faith.

Things don’t always work according to our plans. In my church in Portland we worked at setting up a weekly meal for neighbors so that we could get to know them. We wanted all kinds of people to come. But it turned out that only the homeless came. We had not really planned on this; it wasn’t our focus. And I had no skills in this (although one of our workers did). But it opened up a season of ministry to this population in our area.

The same happened with immigrant Congolese Africans. We never sat down and said, “Hey, let’s begin this ministry.” It wasn’t our focus. But God gave it to us.

We need to be open to the opportunities that God brings across our path even if it’s not our focus or timing.

2. Approach God like this woman did.When you pray, learn from her. She was successful. What did she do?

She approached Jesus with humility:

  • she fell down at his feet
  • she accepted that she’s not-yet part of the elect and has no claim on him
  • she calls him “Lord,” an expression of submission.

Also, she approached Jesus with bold, persistent faith

  • she searched Jesus out while he was in hiding
  • she kept begging
  • she called him “Lord,” also an expression of faith
  • after Jesus said no, she responded boldly
  • and she knew that for him, casting out a demon was only a crumb – a small thing for him to do.

In your prayers, approach God with humility and faith.

3. Know that Jesus is able to help. As we saw in the story, he wasn’t able to stay hidden, but he was able to help.

He’s the Messiah and Savior. And he can take care of us. He can come through for us.

He overcame the power of the evil one in this mom’s daughter – as if it were nothing! From a distance. Without even saying a word. And he’s more than able to deliver us from all the powers of evil and sin that confront us.

The real problem: An impure heart. Mark 7:14-23

The literary structure of Mark 7:1-23

Last week we began looking at Mark 7:1-23. In vs. 1-13 Jesus pointed out the problem of following mere human religious rules or the tradition of the elders. This week we’ll focus on the other point of dispute between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees –

The issue of impurity

Now, this isn’t the most exciting topic, but it’s important for understanding this passage. So here we go. In Scripture an object or a person becomes ritually impure in a number of ways, for instance by contact with a corpse, through various bodily discharges (which I will spare you listing them), or by touching someone who has these.

This creates a problem because God is holy and completely pure. So, if you are impure, you can’t come near to God. You can’t come near the temple, you can’t offer sacrifice (a real concern for priests) and also in some cases you had to stay away from other people. But you could be made ritually pure again by undergoing the proper ritual, which often involved water.

Well, the Pharisees (and their scribes) especially emphasized ritual purity. And in their traditions the rules for purity multiplied greatly beyond what Scripture says and they were applied broadly to everyone. The Pharisees’ goal seems to have been for regular people to maintain the highest possible state of ritual purity.

The Pharisees and those who were influenced by them, thought that this is what the people of God need; this is the agenda for moving forward for renewal and for once again receiving God’s blessing. And this is, no doubt, why they have condemned Jesus and his disciples in our story.

This bring us to –

Jesus’ parable on impurity

 14And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand.”

He has a message for the crowd. And he begins by saying hear and understand. He’s saying, this is important. But also he’s saying this is going to be difficult to understand! It’s called “a parable” in v. 17, and it’s meant to be a cryptic statement.

So you have to put some effort into understanding it. v. 16 isn’t in the earliest manuscripts, but it emphasizes this point as well, “if anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Here’s the parable –

15There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”

 Notice that there are two parallel halves to this. And each half contains a series of contrasts with the other. There is:

  • a contrast between the outside, and the inside of a person
  • a contrast between things that go in from the outside, and things that come out from the inside
  • a contrast between what cannot defile – what goes in, and what does defile – what comes out

So this much is clear. But what else in the world is Jesus talking about?? Thankfully we have –

Jesus’ explanation

17And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding?”

Like in other places in the gospels, Jesus explains his teaching in private to his disciples. First, he deals with the first half of the parable.

“Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him 19since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and goes out into the toilet – cleansing all foods?”

We’re reminded of the bigger context here. Jesus has been talking about eating food with defiled hands. But then something happens. When he tells us why the food doesn’t defile, he talks about how “it enters not his heart.” This is odd until you realize that Jesus has shifted the conversation from one on ritual purity, to one exclusively about moral purity – with a focus on the human heart. This is the key to understanding the parable. He’s not saying whether food does or does not defile someone. He just doesn’t address this. Rather, he’s saying no food can make someone morally impure. Hold on to this. We’ll come back to it.

A digression: At the end of v. 19 we have a dangling participial phrase that’s difficult to make sense of, and it shows up differently in different Bibles. In the earliest manuscripts it says literally, “cleansing all foods,” which can be construed in different ways.

The phrase, “thus he declared . . .” is not in the Greek text. It’s simply one way to make sense of this. Just briefly, my view is that using the phrase “thus he declared” is not the best solution. Rather, it’s best to see “cleansing all foods” as the conclusion of Jesus’ point here. He’s saying, the digestive process cleanses all foods, keeping the good and expelling the bad. Neither Jesus nor Mark is saying the biblical food laws or purity laws for Jews are nullified.

[Grammatically “cleansing” doesn’t have a close antecedent. So you can 1) go back to the beginning of v. 18 and find it in “he said to them” (or forward to v. 20) and come up with “Jesus, cleansing all foods” or as I said above, “Thus he declared all foods clean” or 2) you can take it as a grammatical oddity which sometime happens – an anacoluthon. And then the phrase works as I have interpreted it above. The KJV and NKJV are based on later manuscripts which also connect the phrase to the digestive process, but by means of a change to the word “cleansing.”

The second option is preferable for a number of reasons: 1) Jesus has just strongly rebuked the Pharisees for letting their traditions nullify the word of God. It is not reasonable to think that Jesus would then immediately turn around and nullify actual Scriptural commands to Jews. Jesus would be a law breaker and a sinner. And why is there no trace of him being rebuked by the Pharisees for this? And why would any Jew listen to him? He would be classified as a false prophet. 2) Jesus explicitly teaches that he does not nullify the Law – Matthew 5:17-19. 3) If the first option is accepted, Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples in v. 18 would overly harsh. How could they be expected to anticipate that Jesus would be nullifying Scriptural commands? 4) Jesus’ saying in v. 15 is a “parable” (v. 17). It’s not a halakic statement defining right observance of the Law. And we are told to be careful to listen to what he’s saying. 5) Jesus’ point in all this is that moral impurity is the key. He’s not trying to make a statement on Scriptural teaching on ritual impurity or clean and unclean foods. 6) Matthew 15:20 provides the right interpretation. At the end of this version of the story, Jesus says, “but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” That is he’s criticizing human traditions, not nullifying Scriptural commands. 7) If the first option is right, why did this saying not show up in the discussions of the early church on Gentiles and the Law of Moses in Acts 15? It’s because this passage was not interpreted as Jesus nullifying Scriptural commands by other Jews or his disciples. 8) The question of Gentiles and the Law was settled by the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. Jewish Christians continue to observe the Law (as Jesus interprets it), not for salvation, but as Jews. Gentiles do not need to keep the Law of Moses, except for the three things mentioned in the Apostolic decree from Leviticus 17-18. Other than that they simply follow Jesus.]

Next, Jesus explains the second half of the parable.

20And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him.”

  • Also notice v. 21 – “for from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts . . ..”
  • And as well v. 23 – “ . . . evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

So food can’t make someone morally impure, but the evil that comes out from the heart does defile.

Again, Jesus isn’t talking about ritual purity. He has shifted to a conversation about moral purity. Why? Because the real issue for Jesus is not ritual impurity but heart impurity.

Having heard his explanation, here’s a paraphrase of his parable: There is no food that you take in that can make you morally impure. But the evil things that come out of your heart do make you morally impure. 

Next, Jesus goes on to talk about –

The evil of the human heart

21For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

In v. 21 he speaks of “evil thoughts” and in v. 23 of “evil things.” And in-between these there are 12 things that Jesus mentions.

[The first six are all in the plural, and most are from the 10 commandments. The second six are all in the singular.]

Jesus certainly agreed with the words of Jeremiah 17:9 – “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.”

Notice that “murder” and “slander” or it can also be translated as “blasphemy” are on the list Jesus gives. These are the things that the Pharisees are directing toward him. In chapter 3 we learn that they are seeking to “destroy” him (v. 6), and also we see them slandering or blaspheming him and the Holy Spirit (vs. 28-29). While Jesus and his disciples may be guilty of not keeping mere human rules of ritual impurity, the Pharisees are guilty of true impurity; moral impurity of the heart.

Let’s step back now and look at the bigger picture and –

Jesus’ central point

The Pharisees’ agenda for renewal is about outward rules of purity. They focus on ever more detailed rules for how to stay ritually pure. And they say that this is how God’s people will be renewed; this is how Israel will find God’s favor.

But yet as Jesus said in Mark 7:6, even with all this “their heart is far from God.” And that’s because the real problem is an impure heart and there’s no way a focus on more and more ritual impurity can solve this.

In contrast, Jesus’ agenda for renewal is the giving of a new heart. This is what was promised in the prophets. For instance in Ezekiel 36:25-27. The Lord says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”

This is what God’s people need!! A new, clean heart, given by the Spirit; a heart that has right desires.

Now, he doesn’t talk about the positive part of this here, just what the real problem is. But this is Jesus’ whole mission in coming to us:

  • He died so that our sins might be forgiven; our moral defilement cleansed.
  • And he was raised so that we might receive the Spirit and a new heart that obeys the Lord.

Well, again, it’s easy to pick on the Pharisees, but –

What about us?

We don’t have ritual purity rules like in Jesus’ day. We have rules for purity, but they’re more about hygiene than blocking one’s access to God.

But sometimes we try to cover over our moral impurity by cleaning up the outside of our lives, often using human rules as opposed to what God is focused on. Things like how we dress, using the right words, attending extra church services or volunteering in the community. The outside, our lips, may honor God, but our hearts are far from God. Our hearts are still defiled and filthy. We are hypocrites.

Jesus is teaching us to deal with the real issue – our impure, evil heart. And we have to start within (Matthew 23:25-26)! Let Jesus cleanse away the defilement of your heart. Let Jesus give you a new heart by the Spirit. And let him do these things day by day as there is need.

And then as you’re renewed within, the outward can follow. Out of the abundance of your new heart will come right words (Matthew 12:33-37) and right actions (Matthew 7:15-20).

Jesus takes on mere human traditions. Mark 7:1-13

The literary structure of Mark 7 1-13

We’re launching into an important passage today, Mark 7:1-23. There are actually two significant issues that are talked about in these verses – human religious traditions and how to be pure before God.  The plan is to deal with the first one today, in vs. 1-13. And we’ll look at the second, purity, next week.

Our Scripture begins with Jesus involved in, surprise, surprise –

A conflict

1Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed.

So some Pharisees are present and also some experts of the Law from Jerusalem – the theologians of that day. They’re checking Jesus out. They want to see what he’s up to.

The last time we saw some scribes they accused Jesus of being possessed by Satan (3:22), so not a friendly audience. Well, they and the Pharisees take issue again when they see some of Jesus’ disciples not washing their hands before they eat.

Now, this isn’t about good hygiene. As v. 2 indicates, it has to do with ritual uncleanness or defilement; that is to say, eating this way makes you ceremonially unclean before God.

Mark goes on to explain –

3For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.

[“All the Jews” is a bit of a generalization. Certainly the Pharisees, who were influential, held to the need for washing hands, as did the Essences, another prominent group of Jews. 

One word in not translated. It comes at the end of the phrase in v. 3, “they wash their hands . . ..” It says literally “with a fist.” No one knows for sure what this means. It might mean “carefully” or it might refer to how the hands are ritually washed. 

The very last phrase of v. 4, literally “and beds” or “and dining couches” is not in all the manuscripts. So if your Bible doesn’t have it, that’s why.]

Mark here is helping his non-Jewish readers (us) understand the situation. 1) Washing things was a big deal for many Jews, especially the Pharisees. And 2) The command to wash hands comes from “the tradition of the elders” not from Scripture itself.

This body of tradition was followed by the Pharisees. It’s sometimes called the oral law. The idea was that Moses wrote down the Law in the Bible, but other instructions were passed on generation to generation by word of mouth. (This tradition was later written out in the Mishna, and other writings.) So, the Pharisees believed there are two sources of commandments, the written Law in Scripture and the oral law or tradition of the elders.

5And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

This is really an attack on Jesus. The charge is that his disciples aren’t faithful to God, which means that, since he’s their teacher, he’s not faithful. (Jesus also didn’t follow this practice – Luke 11:38).

Their charge involves both the issue of 1) keeping the traditions, and 2) what purity means. But as I said, we’ll focus on the first for today.

Jesus on human traditions

Jesus’ first response comes in vs. 6-8, where he calls them out as hypocrites.

6And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 7in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

A hypocrite looks one way – good, but is actually another – not so good.

Jesus quotes from the prophets, specifically Isaiah 29:3, a passage that deals with honoring God. And he sees this verse, on one level, as pointing to the Pharisees and the scribes – and their error here. (The quote is closer to the LXX, although the same basic point in made in the MT).

The word “worship” should be taken in its broad sense of  a life of service and obedience to God, not just how they participate in a worship service.

They look like they’re honoring God with their lives. But this is only external, with their lips. Their heart remains far away. Why is their heart far away? Why is their worship “vain” or useless? Because they are only about teaching and following human rules.

He’s saying Isaiah hit it right on the head about you guys –

8You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

Notice the contrast here between a life that is based on God and God’s commandments, and a life that is based on tradition and human commandments, which is useless.

Jesus’ second response comes in vs. 9-13, where he illustrates their hypocrisy. He begins with the same point he just made in v. 8 –

 9And he said to them, “Well have you set aside the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!’”

He’s saying again, you prefer your tradition to God’s commands. You leave or set aside what God says, to keep what you say.

Jesus then quotes from the Law on honoring parents –

10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’”

 He’s quoting Exodus 20:12, the fifth of the ten commandments and Exodus 21:17. It was understood by all that honoring parents, for adult children, includes caring for them financially when the’re older. The second reference shows how serious this issue is. Those who don’t honor their parents, but revile or curse them, deserve the death penalty.

Then Jesus lays out their hypocrisy –

11But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God)— 12then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother . . .”

Notice the strong contrast between what God has said through Moses, and what they say based on their tradition, which is not God’s word.

The word “corban” is a technical term for a vow to give your resources to God (that is, the Temple), but apparently the person here could still have access to them and use them until a later time. (This view was most likely held by many Pharisees and scribes at this time. It was rejected in later Judaism m. Ned. 9:1).

So based on their tradition the Pharisees and scribes said that you must keep your vow, and not the commandment to honor your parents. That is, you can withhold giving your resources to support your parents.

“. . . 13thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

They allow people to nullify what God commands, in order to keep a vow that is unrighteous in the first place. Indeed, they allow not only the breaking of the fifth commandment, but an action that is on a par with reviling one’s parents, which deserves the death penalty!

Summing up: Their charge was, ‘Jesus, you’re not faithful to God because you don’t keep the traditions of the elders.’ His response was, ‘Pharisees, you’re not faithful to God because you keep the traditions of the elders.’

They neither honor God (Isaiah 29) nor people, that is, their parents (Exodus 20 and 21). This is why they’re hypocrites. And he makes his point, not based on the traditions of the elders, mere human teaching, but based on the Law and the Prophets, that is, based on God’s word.

Well, it’s easy to criticize others, like the Pharisees, but –

What about us?

We all have human traditions. We all have opinions and convictions about how Christians should do things – that are not explicitly taught in Scripture.

  • What style of music should we sing in worship?
  • Should the sermon be about evangelism each week, with an altar call, or not?
  • What kind of clothes should we wear to church? Should we dress up or it doesn’t matter as long as they are modest?

Maybe you would see “the tradition of the elders” as equaling doing things the way we’ve always done things. But maybe our religious rule is that we have to be on the cutting edge and always do something new. It can work either way.

Now, for sure, we have to make choices on things to be able to function as a community. It isn’t wrong to have some traditions. But they can be taken too far.

What about us? Learn to differentiate between your traditions and God’s word. Eight times, in one way or another, our passage talks about human religious traditions. And throughout these are contrasted with “God’s word” or what is written in Scripture. These things are not the same. And so do not put them on the same level as the Pharisees did.

Yes, sometimes we have different views on things based on different interpretations of Scripture. But in the examples I have given you there is no explicit Scriptural teaching to settle the issue. They are matters of personal conviction, or a whole church’s conviction. And faithful Christians can differ.

What about us? Make sure your obedience to God is based on God’s word, and not mere human traditions. If your Christian life is just about making sure you practice your  traditions – I dressed right for church, I only sang the right kind of songs – then your obedience to God is useless, just like the Pharisees. Congratulations, you are a hypocrite! You look religious, but you haven’t built your life on following what God is actually interested in; what God teaches us.

Finally, what about us? Don’t judge others as unfaithful because of your traditions. This is what the Pharisees did to Jesus and his disciples. Jesus was faithful in every way, but was rejected as unfaithful because he didn’t conform to their merely human traditions.

And we do this too. Look, they aren’t faithful to God because they don’t dress right or sing the right kind of songs. When we do this we place our traditions over God’s commands. We do just what Jesus says about the Pharisees in v. 8 – we “leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

So let’s learn to identify and relegate our traditions to what they actually are – just our own convictions, not God’s commands. And let’s be generous and flexible with each other in the practice of our common Christian faith.

Jesus heals many people. Mark 6:54-56

Our passage this morning is quite short – only 3 verses! But I want us to look at it because its important and it leads us into a focus on Jesus as the anointed one, which I’ll get to later.

Let me say two things about these verses first: 1) They are the end of a large section of material in the Gospel of Mark from chapter 4:35-6:56. You can see how this section of Mark is put together in this handout – The literary structure of Mark 4:35 – 6:56. 2) These verses parallel another section of material just before the feeding of the 5,000, in 6:33-34. See this handout – The literary structure Mark 6:54-56. Notice that each set of verses has three parts – they recognized Jesus, they ran through all the towns/the whole region, Jesus taught/healed. These sets of verses frame the two stories of the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus walking on water letting us know that Mark wants us to think of them together.

Alright, let’s look at our verses –

Mark 6:54-56

54And when they got out of the boat . . .

Remember with me, Jesus has just walked on water and calmed the wind, and he and the 12 have now landed at Gennesaret.

. . . the people immediately recognized him 55and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was.

Once again, we see here Jesus as the celebrity of the day. He was truly famous and sought out by the common person. Not always for the best reasons, we could say – to believe in him, to be his disciple – but to have their needs met. Nevertheless Jesus does care about them and by and large he accommodates their requests for help.

56And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces . . .

These would usually be the largest open area of a given village or town. And so these people, not the sick themselves and not the disciples, are running ahead of Jesus to bring the sick to these marketplaces wherever he went.

. . . and (they) implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment.

The fringe of his garment refers to the four blue tassels that all Jewish men were to wear according to the Law of Moses (Numbers 15:38-39; Deuteronomy 22:12). This shows us again that Jesus was an observant and devout Jew (see also Mark 1:44.)

And as many as touched it were made well.

What an amazing display of God’s power. God’s Spirit was so upon Jesus that such a simple act of faith, touching the fringe of his garment, brought healing.

Notice the expansive language in these verses – people ran through the “whole region” to bring the sick to “wherever” Jesus was going. Mark is emphasizing the extent of Jesus’ healing ministry in this region. And then notice what little they had to do, just touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as did this were healed. All of this is to remind us of who Jesus is and his great healing power. Which brings me to my point today –

Jesus really is the anointed one

Remember “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name. No. It’s a title. It’s the same word as “Messiah.” Christ comes into English from Greek and Messiah from Hebrew, but they’re the same word. Christ or Messiah is a title that describes who Jesus is – it literally means “the anointed one.”

What does it mean to be “the anointed one”? In the Old Testament people were anointed to carry out specific tasks for God: kings (2 Samuel 5:3), priests (Exodus 29:7) and prophets (1 Kings 19:16). Oil was used representing the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

To say that Jesus is “the anointed one” is to say that he’s the one, promised in the Old Testament, who brings God’s salvation.

When did his anointing happen? At his baptism. Mark 1:10 says, “And 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.”

How do we know for sure that Jesus was anointed? Mark narrates it for us. These are the works of Spirit power that Jesus has done so far in our story: (Red is an exorcism, green a healing and purple a miracle.)

1. Cast out a demon (chapter 1)

2. Healed Peter’s mother in law (1)

3. Healed many and cast out many demons in Capernaum (1)

4. Healed a leper (1)

5. Healed a paralyzed man (2)

6. Healed a man with a withered hand (3)

7. Healed many and cast out many demons from a crowd from all Israel and beyond (3)

8. Calmed the storm (4)

9. Cast out a legion of demons (5)

10. Healed a woman (5)

11. Raised a girl from the dead (5)

12. Healed some in Nazareth (6)

13. Fed 5,000 people (6)

14. Walked on water and calmed the wind (6)

15. Healed many from Gennesaret (6) which is our passage.

Here are the works of Spirit power that we haven’t looked at yet:

16. Cast out a demon from a girl (7)

17. Healed a deaf man who also couldn’t talk – (7)

18. Fed 4,000 people (8)

19. Healed a blind man (8)

20. Cast out a demon from a boy (9)

21. Healed a blind man (10)

22. Killed a fig tree with his words to make a point (11)

And the other gospels record many more works of power by Jesus. And so I highlight all this for you to make the simple point that – No one has ever done such things! Jesus is indeed the anointed one; the one promised now come.

How should we respond?

  • We should believe that he’s the one, as Jesus calls us to in Mark 1:15, “believe the good news” that he’s bringing God’s kingdom salvation.
  • And we should turn away from our sins, as he calls us to in the same verse, “repent.” We are to become his disciples and put into practice his teaching and example.
  • And we should receive the salvation he gives to us, through his death and resurrection – forgiveness and new life by the Spirit.
  • And as his people we should trust and know that we can rely on him, the anointed one, to take care of any need we have.