The Making of a Modern Pharisee

By Marshall Segal.

Read:  Mark 7:1-23

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We are all born legalists, but we are made into Pharisees.

Spurgeon once preached, “Beloved, the legalist [in us] is a great deal older than the Christian. If I were a legalist today, I should be some fifteen or sixteen years older than I am as a Christian; for we are all born legalists.”

We are all born believing we can earn and deserve heaven. We are born resisting the idea of grace, mostly because of the awful things grace says about us. John Piper defines legalism as “the conviction that law-keeping is the ground for our acceptance with God — a failure to be amazed at grace.”

Pharisees are legalists, but not the newborn kind. They have all the same fears about grace, but they have coated their insecurities with accumulated knowledge, morality, and religion. Pharisees are legalists who are puffed up (1 Corinthians 8:1). They look educated, clean, and alive, all while dying inside. The seeds of sin and death keep growing and spreading underneath the confident appearances and practices, always harder and harder to cover up.

We are born legalists. But Pharisees are informed legalists.

He Came to Call Sinners

Pharisees were Jesus’s greatest human enemies. They misjudged him, to be sure, but their greater problem, in the end, was that they misjudged God and themselves. The Christ could have come a thousand different ways — in a manger or on a throne, wrapped in rags or robed in fine cloth, to a carpenter or to a king. They always would have rejected the real Jesus, because they refused to believe that they needed the only thing he came to give.

They gossiped to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30). But Jesus overheard them and said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31–32).

Jesus was not saying he came only to save the people that seem to need him most, like rapists, prostitutes, and murderers. No one needs him more than you or me. He was saying he came to save the people who recognize their need for him. While Pharisees were keeping their distance and plotting to kill Jesus, it was tax collectors and sinners who were soaking up every minute of his short life.

Prodigal God

Tim Keller writes about the dangers of Phariseeism today, even in evangelical churches,

We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. (Prodigal God, 15–16)

Why would our churches attract the conservative, buttoned-down, and moralistic? Is it because they feel more at home with us than they did with Jesus in his day?

The problem with Pharisees is not simply that they preach a false gospel of works. That is a serious, damnable flaw (Galatians 1:9). But there are plenty of “gospel-centered” Pharisees today. The real problem is the pride and greed and fear underneath any works-based confidence in ourselves. That pride and greed and fear (or whatever sin you struggle with) eventually sever our mind and mouth from our heart.

Jesus rebukes the Pharisees, saying, “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’” (Mark 7:6). They had developed ways of appearing to be godly without really preferring and prioritizing God in their hearts. What they knew about God was disconnected from how they felt about God, and therefore left them even further from God.

Recognizing a Pharisee

If we are serious about grace, and true slaves to righteousness (Romans 6:15–18), we must beware of the symptoms of gracelessness. If we refuse to believe we could be a Pharisee, we’re as vulnerable as the Pharisees who murdered the Author of life. So, how would we know if we had subtly become a modern-day Pharisee? Jesus gives us at least six signposts along the highway away from grace.

1. Pharisees know what to say, but do not do what they say.

Jesus says, “They preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:3–4). Beware the dissonance between what you say you believe and the reality of how you live, and refuse to make peace with it.

We are all sinners, so there will be always be some dissonance (1 John 1:8). We are always repenting this side of glory. But look closely at any consistent or reoccurring departure — in spending and giving, in serving, in relating to your spouse or children, in loving your neighbor, in indulging in secret sin.

What excuses do you make for the sins that entangle you? The Pharisees were happy to point out sin in others, and even happier to excuse it in themselves.

2. Pharisees practice their faith to be seen by others.

Jesus goes on, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others” (Matthew 23:5). The Pharisees prayed to be seen by others (Matthew 6:5). They served the poor to be seen by others (Matthew 6:2). They obeyed the Scriptures to be seen by others (Matthew 6:1). And they received what they really wanted: recognition and esteem from others.

Jesus warns, though, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). Is your Christianity consistently aiming for acceptance or approval or affirmation? Are you Christian mainly for the social benefits? Or do you pray, and serve, and give “to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31), for “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ” (Philippians 3:8).

If so, the reward from your Father will be fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11).

3. Pharisees keep people from Jesus and his grace.

Jesus brings a third indictment in Matthew 23,

“You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:13–15)

One of the greatest dangers of Phariseeism is that it’s contagious. When we disconnect our heart from our head, subtly putting our confidence in our flesh, we lead other people away from Jesus with us. When Pharisees make disciples of all nations, they breed children of hell, not sons and daughters of grace.

Are the people following you amazed by grace? Does your influence in their lives widen their eyes and heart to the wonder that God would save any of us?

4. Pharisees add their convictions and traditions to the word of God.

What preferences, or convictions, or traditions do we have that are not clearly commanded in Scripture? Pharisees love and protect their traditions with their lives. They build massive systems and programs, like sets for a musical, that unnecessarily burdened God’s people — and that hid what’s really happening inside of them.

They established and enforced laws about swearing that allowed someone to go back on their word in various circumstances. If someone swore by the temple, he did not need to follow through, but if he swore by the gold of the temple, he was bound (Matthew 23:16). Jesus says instead, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:37).

What practices or programs in our churches have become exhausting and unfruitful structures of avoiding what God has really called us to do? Maybe they were envisioned, created, and developed with God’s help and favor, but are we preserving and imposing them simply because “we’ve always done it this way”?

5. Pharisees lack love for people in need.

Besides their hatred of Jesus, the most glaring warning light in the Gospels is the Pharisees’ lack of love for people, especially people in need. Jesus rebukes them, “You tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:23–24).

They looked for every conceivable reason not to help the poor, oppressed, and needy. They looked down on Jesus for sitting with sinners, instead of having compassion on them (Mark 2:16). They despised Jesus for healing a man’s withered hand, instead of wanting to see him healed (Mark 3:5–6). They cursed Jesus for casting a demon out of another man, instead of rejoicing that he was finally free (Matthew 12:22–24).

Pharisees find every way to leverage the law to walk the long way around the half-dead man lying in the middle of the road right in front of them (Luke 10:31–32). Those who have died with Christ have died to themselves, and live for the needs and interests of others, whoever God has placed in our path.

6. Pharisees cover sin instead of confessing and repenting.

Jesus exposes the Pharisees a sixth time,

“You clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. . . . You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:25–28)

Lawful on the outside, but full of lawlessness. Bleached exterior walls, but full of death. A conservative, moral, and religious social media profile, but chasing sin with every secret click.

If we make every effort to cover our sin and hide our need, we clearly have not understood the gospel, and we have not embraced grace. Pharisees say they have fellowship with Jesus while they walk in darkness (1 John 1:6). Lovers of Jesus confess our sin, knowing “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Are You a Pharisee in the Making?

Do you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself? Anyone who has been given greater knowledge has received greater vulnerability with it.

If we begin to sense a disconnect between our head and our heart — what we say and who we are — the solution is not simply more head. Read more. Take more classes. Google more definitions and explanations. The knowledge is vital (Romans 10:2), but it is not the key to reviving our hearts. God is. Knowledge doesn’t open eyes and ears. God does. God must drag whatever each of us knows about him into our hearts and light it, by his Spirit, with faith and love and joy.

The apostle Paul prays for this, “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened” (Ephesians 1:16–18). Paul doesn’t say put away knowledge, or neglect theology, or disregard difficult questions in the Bible. No, he simply prays that God would set all of that thinking on fire in our hearts — that he would make grace compelling and Jesus satisfying to us.

A Prayer To Turn My Back on Evil and Be Allowed to Fight Injustice

And [Jesus] said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Jesus, you taught us that all of God’s law, and everything revealed to us hangs on and depends on these two commandments. It seems impossible to love you with all of my everything — please help me! And it seems impossible to actually LOVE my neighbor, everyone I know or could meet, as I love myself. I need your enabling power — help me! This is so much beyond just being a “nice person” or “decent human being” — but I want to be what you’ve made me to be.

Forgive me for my failures to love; cleanse me of my guilt when I look at someone with another ethnicity and fail to see your image in the way you have made them. Equip me with your strength, Jesus, just as you promised that you created me to walk in good works. Let me genuinely love and serve you, God, and my neighbor only in the strength you provide.

Father, let me see you and know you, and your goodness. Let me, like the Psalmist, look on your kindness and your likeness. Let me glimpse your holiness!

The LORD passed before [Moses] and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7)

Father in Heaven, You are merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. I seek your mercy and your forgiveness for my sins. Let me see my guilt, my failure to meet your standard to honor your holiness, and to love you and all the people you make. Father, you know where all the injustice has been in my world before I came to be and around me. Let me turn my back on it — forgive my iniquity; undo my transgression; cover my sin — with Jesus’s blood that was given for me to cover my sin. Open my eyes to the corruption of evil and let me repent of any part in it that I play, because it is a show against your holiness. Keep me from tolerating anything harmful done against the people you have made.

Are my eyes closed to transgression? Am I somehow supporting evil, or complying with injustice? Is there a need that I can help with? Is there some way I can bring justice and do good? I sense that there is wrong around me; I am grieved by the sin in my own heart and all abuses of power done in my name by my government and ruling institutions. You alarm me by the way you told your people through your prophet —

When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:15-17)

Don’t let me be cut off from you, Father! Don’t hide your eyes from me. Please hear my prayers.

By the grace given to me in Jesus, please cleanse my from my sin; show me the blood on my hands. Show me if I am tolerating or supporting any evil.

Please wash me and make me clean! Show me how to reject evil and put it away.

I need your help to see evil in my own heart; please reveal it to me, for I know you are gracious and quick to forgive. Please allow me to cease to do evil and stop it immediately.

My Teacher, I don’t know how to do good in every case; please teach me! I want to learn how to do good.

Great Judge of the World, show me where there is injustice, and let me seek to remedy it. Show me how to do justice; don’t lead me into temptation to do injustice, but deliver me from evil.

Gracious Jesus, who offers a light burden, please help me to correct oppression. Show me where oppression still exists, and enable me to correct it. Don’t let me be satisfied to allow oppression to go on.

Heavenly Father, you are on the side of the fatherless and the widow against their oppressors. Please bring justice to the fatherless, and let me be a part. Show me the need of the widow and the vulnerable, and help me to argue their case.

Lord God, You are building your kingdom of justice and righteousness — please let me to be part.

I pray with Daniel that to you belongs righteousness — but to us belongs open shame. (Daniel 9) For we have not obeyed your laws — there have been many times we have failed. We have not always listened to your Word, your teachers, and our leaders have gone astray, and we have tolerated them. Though you have called us to be your people, we have sometime committed treachery by rebelling against your law of love.

But for your name’s sake, for the sake of Jesus who already paid the penalty for these sins and who has brought us to your throne — please show us your mercy, and forgive us. We repent of our own sin; we turn our backs on the errors of those we have loved and trusted; we don’t accept the wrongdoing of the past. Please let me walk before you in humility, and please let me to learn to do good, to correct oppression. Please show me the wisdom and strength I need to stop injustice committed around me and in my land. Soften my heart and let me walk before you in righteousness.

Christ the Warrior in Prayer

By R.C. Sproul.

Read:  Mark 6:45-56

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We are accustomed to understanding the shepherding language in Scripture in warm, pastoral terms of comfort. Certainly, that is appropriate, since the Bible often uses shepherding imagery in such a way (for example, Ps. 23). However, the language of shepherd and sheep also appears in reference to military leaders. It is applied to Assyrian generals in Nahum 3:18. Ezekiel 37:24 likens the king of Israel, who commanded the nation’s armies, to a shepherd. We could multiply examples, but the point is that any reference to shepherds as the leaders of God’s people, at least for ancient Jews, carried with it militaristic overtones.

Consequently, the use of shepherding imagery for Jesus in Mark 6:30–44 points us to a situation in which the crowd He fed with five loaves and two fishes would likely have expected Jesus to lead them in a military coup against the Roman Empire. That the Galilean and Judean wildernesses were gathering places for many first-century Jewish uprisings that sought to cast off the yoke of Roman rule under the military command of a would-be messiah also makes it likely that at least some in the crowd would be looking for Jesus to be a military leader. But the most significant evidence for this belief on the part of the crowd is found in John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand. There, we read that after the miracle, the crowd wanted to “take [Jesus] by force to make him king” (John 6:1–15).

That helps explain the urgency with which Jesus made His disciples depart from the wilderness where he fed the five thousand (Mark 6:45). The people’s false expectations could draw the notice of the authorities before it was time for Jesus to end His earthly ministry, so He and the disciples had to leave before the crowd could cause more of an uproar. Notably, however, Jesus did not go all the way to Bethsaida with them, at least not at first. Instead, “after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray” (v. 46).

Here, we see the importance of prayer in Christ’s own life of devotion to the Father. As the second person of the Trinity in eternal communion with His Father, Jesus nevertheless knew success in His ministry required dedicated time in prayer. This was particularly key at a moment when others sought to give Him premature acclaim, just as Satan promised Him the kingdoms of this world (Matt. 4:7–11). In an hour of temptation and for the sake of His continuing ministry, our Savior turned to His Father in prayer.

Coram Deo

Jesus is more than a model of faithfulness to God, but He is certainly not less than that. Thus, we learn from Him that when we are faced with temptation and need sustenance in life and ministry, we must turn to God in prayer. If we humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord and call on Him for help, He will surely lift us up and sustain us (1 Peter 5:6).

God Feeds His People…Again

Adapted from The ESV Gospel Transformation Bible, (C) 2013

Read:  Mark 6:6-44

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The feeding of the 5,000 (see also Mark 8:1-10) is a reminder of when God miraculously fed Israel in the desert centuries earlier (Ex 16:31; Deut. 8:16).  The same God who provided for Israel is now providing for the needs of this hungry crowd through his Son.

God always provides what is best for his eternal purposes, and often his provisions do not come in the ways we would expect.  Perhaps he is providing for you by giving you the opportunity to study, to work hard, or to live a very modest life that requires daily dependence.  Nothing is without divine purpose, and everything will make sense someday.  We can trust Christ for our daily needs because we have already seen God provide for our deepest needs in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  When believers are trusting in God’s control and care for our lives, it radically impacts our attitudes toward work, career, challenges, opposition, scarcity, sacrifice, the future, and even life itself.

Relationships Move at the Speed of Trust 

I sat in the worship center processing this sentence that Josh Reed had just uttered. “Relationships move at the speed of trust.” The more I mulled it over in my mind, the more it rang true. My deepest and longest lasting relationships are with people I trust the most. My most fragile and tepid relationships are with those I trust the least. When the world gets topsy-turvy and we need advice we can trust, where do we turn?

In a day and age where everyone’s voice is equally heard over the conduits of social media, filtering the voices we trust and those who are just screaming the loudest (in all caps) is exhausting. However, it is necessary if we are to “Engage” our culture and speak to the hurts of our friends. With that in mind, we are so blessed to have leadership at North Wake that desires to equip the church for this mission and that we can trust. Mark Liederbach, an elder here at North Wake, recorded a short 15 minute video on Racial Reconciliation six months ago. I pray his wisdom and Biblical moorings will help you love God and your neighbors right now.

Miracle of Miracles

By Jeff Peabody.

Read:  Mark 5:21-6:6

Off the shores of the Philippines, a fisherman discovered a very large, misshapen pearl. It was not pretty. It looked more like an amoeba, with blobs and folds everywhere. He took the unusual find home and stowed it under his bed.

When he moved ten years later, he had no use for it, so he gave it to the local tourism office. It turned out to be the world’s largest pearl, with an estimated worth of roughly $100 million.

It’s easy to miss the value of something when it bears no resemblance to what we were thinking. Scripture tells us that the good news of the kingdom is like a priceless pearl (Matt. 13:45). But what if it doesn’t look like any pearl we’ve ever seen?

There’s a story in the gospels about a time in Jesus’ ministry when he returned to his boyhood stomping grounds of Nazareth. The reception was less than stellar, because he didn’t look like the hope anyone expected.

There’s no place like home

Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples visited his hometown on a Sabbath. He went into the synagogue and started teaching in a way that stunned his listeners. People were shocked that this man they had known since childhood had the audacity to say the things he did, as if he had the authority and credentials to do so. It was offensive.

That reception impacted Christ’s work outside the synagogue:

He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith. (Mark 6:5–6)

It’s a little jarring to read that Jesus was unable to perform any miracles that day. What happened? At face value, it sounds as if the people’s lack of faith was his kryptonite, as if it weakened him or robbed him of his power. The incident reads like a sad footnote to a day gone wrong, where Christ couldn’t do what he really wanted to do. Here is a cautionary tale against the dangers of unbelief.

Granted, faith is essential to the Christian life (Heb. 11:6). It’s difficult to receive anything from Christ if we don’t believe he can offer it in the first place. But is that all there is to this story? Is this nothing more than a warning about what happens when faith is subpar? If so, the unbelief of the people of Nazareth (or us) replaces Christ as the main character.

In the play Peter Pan, there’s a moment where audience members must clap their hands if they believe in fairies so that Tinkerbell will live. Her very existence hinges on the volume of the applause.

We can adopt a similar attitude toward Jesus, making his strength dependent on the strength of our faith. We become preoccupied with the sufficiency of our own belief, agonizing over the question: Do we have enough faith to make miracles happen? It puts Christ at the mercy of our commitment to him. And our unease increases as we step up the pressure to generate our own adequacy.

It is a subtle yet dangerous shift in our focus. As author Bryan Chapell puts it in his book The Gospel According to Daniel: A Christ-Centered Approach, when we are in that place, “Our faith is not so much in God as it is in the amount of belief we have conjured up to control him.”

In the very first verse of his gospel, Mark makes it clear that his writing has one theme: “Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Every line supports his contention that Jesus is the Messiah. The author stays singularly on topic throughout the entire book.

That includes this passage. Despite appearances, it is not primarily about followers and their role in making miracles happen: It’s about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And it is about his strength—not his weakness.

When Mark says Jesus “could not” perform any mighty works there, he isn’t suggesting the Lord was incapacitated in some way. As New Testament scholar William Lane makes clear in his commentary on Mark, the “could not” is one of principle more than power. Working miracles in the absence of faith was impossible because it would have directly contradicted Christ’s message.

No need for approval

In fact, Christ’s choice to do nothing in this story embodies a bigger truth. Instead of indicating failure, his inactivity told the world exactly who had arrived. Theologian P. T. Forsyth in The Cruciality of the Cross alludes to how the silence of Christ speaks volumes about his work. Similarly, the very lack of a dramatic display in Nazareth becomes a revelation of Jesus’ character.

Think for a moment about the people of Nazareth. They could not bring themselves to accept Jesus as the Son of God. The whole notion of him being special was offensive. It did not fit their understanding of the world.

And why would it? Important people have money. They have good looks, the right schooling, impressive resumes, connections to other influential individuals. Jesus was just a local boy no different than anyone else who had a sketchy origin story and a blue-collar skill set. Humanly speaking, he didn’t have the credentials to merit paying him much attention. Isaiah had spoken to this fact centuries earlier: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him … and we esteemed him not” (Isa. 53:2–3).

In the face of that skepticism and outright hostility, Jesus chose not to do miracles. If I were in his shoes, I think I would have gone the opposite direction. Given my tendency to want everyone’s approval and acceptance, I would have thought, “Here’s an opportunity to win these people over. I must give them what they want. They don’t believe now, but if I do something impressive, it will convince them once and for all that I really am the Son of God.”

Praise God that Christ does not share my insecurity. People were always asking him for a sign, some evidence of his claims. It took tremendous inner strength to not act in an effort to prove himself. That strength came from being firmly grounded in the love and delight of his Father (Mark 1:11). His was the only assessment that counted, and he was thoroughly pleased with his Son before he had even begun his public ministry.

That unshakable love was the foundation that freed Christ from the compulsion to scramble after the crowd’s approval. He could stay focused on his singular mission without getting caught in the trap of satisfying everyone’s expectations. He came to save, not to sell.

Foreshadowing temptation

It is easy to convince ourselves that making the best impression on people is what will most serve the gospel. Our rationale is that the better we package the message, the more attractive Christ will be.

Yet our motivation for wanting to be spectacular can often be traced back to fear. Fear of rejection. Fear of looking stupid. Fear of being misunderstood. Fear of not being enough. When those anxieties sit behind our efforts, we’re no longer living out of the reality that God loves us beyond measure and nothing can snatch us out of his hand.

Christ’s willingness to suffer the misunderstanding and rejection of his own people is not just some unfortunate byproduct of a day that should have gone differently. It is him revealing his character in a manner that far exceeded any validation he could offer through a miraculous display. Here is the Son of God, suffering injustice and bearing iniquity without defending himself. Here is the Lord of heaven willingly embracing helplessness. And we catch a glimpse of the Lamb who stood silent before his shearers (Isa. 53:7).

The temptation to be impressive in his hometown foreshadowed the temptation Christ faced during his trial and crucifixion. From Pilate to the priests to the disciples, everyone assumed that the best thing Jesus could do was to help himself not be crucified. That seemed like the obvious choice for anybody with the power at their disposal that Jesus claimed to have.

The religious leaders looked at him hanging on the cross and verbalized it directly: “Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe” (Mark 15:32).

Yet if he had listened to their logic and used their criteria for attempting to prove himself—miraculously getting down from the cross—he would have undermined the very core of his mission and disproved himself instead. The true demonstration of his power was the opposite of what everyone was wanting from him. He showed his strength by doing nothing, by staying right there on the cross. And it was his death, not a remarkable escape, that caused the centurion to say, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39).

Every miracle a gift

Kosuke Koyama wrote in Three Mile an Hour God, “Jesus Christ came. He walked towards the ‘full stop’. He lost his mobility. He was nailed down. … At this point of ‘full stop’, the apostolic church proclaims that the love of God to man is ultimately and fully revealed.”

We speak frequently of being crucified with Christ. What if this is what it looks like? Doing nothing and embracing our powerlessness. Not explaining or defending or proving ourselves. Being brought to a full stop where, as Brené Brown puts it, you “get clear on whose opinions of you matter.”

I don’t much like getting to full stop. When I reach the point of utter fatigue in ministry. When I am unfairly treated. When I am helpless to create change. It feels wrong. Where’s the victory? Where is the one who is fully capable of taking our breath away?

In the absence of miracles, a greater wonder emerges: a Savior who transforms my suffering by staying with me through it. Instead of bending to my demands for proof of his power, he enters the vacancies in far more redemptive ways.

I want to have a big faith that looks expectantly for the wine-making, disease-curing, water-walking Jesus. I want to live like everything is possible for the one who believes (Mark 9:23).

But it is good to know that Christ’s work is not all depending on me. His hands are not tied by disbelief. “If we are faithless, he remains faithful” (2 Tim. 2:13). He is present in the silence of non-answers, true to himself regardless of my fluctuating trust.

Every magnificent miracle he graces us with is a gift worthy of celebration. May he also give us eyes to see and trust that even his inaction—maybe especially his inaction—reflects his full stop on the cross. Because it is only his acceptance of the grave that brings us the hope of the resurrection, the best miracle of all.

The Infallible Pilot

By Tony Reinke.

Read:  Mark 4:35-5:20

In the fall of 1782, a 57-year-old man walked the docks of Deptford, a South London port on the Thames river. Thirty miles inland from the sea, the port was the home of the Royal Navy Dockyards, and the man looked out over the war ships and merchant vessels as he reflected on his own seafaring past. It’s not possible to know all the memories passing through his mind, but he was likely reminded of his time spent aboard a Navy ship, a few merchant ships, and even African slave trading ships. His mind certainly reflected on the brutal and uncertain life of seafaring.

The man was John Newton, and he was now a pastor, though a very unlikely one.

Newton’s life on the dark sea was long over. He last voyaged to Africa 28 years earlier, and the fateful night on the ship Greyhound that nearly claimed his life was now a 35-year-old memory. Here on the shores of Deptford all was peaceful, calm, and safe, a nice port for ships to be refurbished, remodeled, and repainted to their original luster.

In the Dock

On this particular walk, Newton watched the celebration at the dockyard as one majestically refurbished ship was launched back into the water of the Thames. “She slipped easily into the water; the people on board shouted; the ship looked clean and gay, she was fresh painted, and her colors flying,” he recounted in a letter to his 13-year-old adopted daughter Betsy (of a scene very similar to the banner image of this post painted at Deptford).

“The ship was beautiful,” he wrote, “but I looked at her with a sort of pity. ‘Poor ship,’ I thought, ‘you are now in port and in safety; but ere long you must go to sea. Who can tell what storms you may meet with hereafter, and to what hazards you may be exposed; how weather-beaten you may be before you return to port again, or whether you may return at all!”

His beloved daughter Betsy was now off at a boarding school. She was in the calm and safe docks of life, being prepared for the open-sea uncertainties of adulthood. As Newton thought about the ship, he thought about his daughter’s life, and about life in general. She was now in “a safe harbor; but by and by you must launch out into the world, which may well be compared to a tempestuous sea. I could even now almost weep at the resemblance; but I take courage; my hopes are greater than my fears.”

The Infallible Pilot

Many Christian parents have since expressed these same prayerful tears for their own children. The open seas of life claim lives and ships, no matter how large or beautiful or celebrated. Shipwrecks are a harsh reality in a fallen world.

“I know there is an infallible Pilot, who has the winds and the waves at his command,” Newton wrote. “There is hardly a day passes in which I do not entreat him to take charge of you. Under his care I know you will be safe; he can guide you, unhurt, amidst the storms, and rocks, and dangers, by which you might otherwise suffer, and bring you, at last, to the haven of eternal rest.”

The phrase — infallible Pilot — is one of Newton’s favorites. Newton himself was a living testimony of the infallible Pilot of souls, and he loved to use the phrase to encourage many Christian friends who struggled with doubts and unbelief and weariness in this life.

The storms will come. The storms of life are real. And that broke Newton’s heart. But there was hope in the infallible Pilot for his precious and beloved daughter. Betsy had already tasted the open sea in the death of her parents. More trials were coming. In her adult life she would battle a storm of depression that would land her in the infamous Bedlam Hospital.

Newton saw the storm clouds gathering out at sea as he stood at the docks and thought of his daughter in the docks (boarding school). “Our voyage through life will sometimes be incommoded by storms, but the Lord Jesus is an infallible, almighty Pilot. The winds and the seas obey him. None ever miscarried under his care; and he takes charge of all who entrust themselves to him.”

Vain Mortals

Security in high seas will only be found in the One who commands the high seas.

By stilling the windstorm and the waves, Jesus revealed he was Yahweh himself, and more than qualified to pilot his people and to exercise sovereign rule over all the circumstances of their lives (Mark 4:35–41).

Such a Pilot was essential for life. As Newton knew firsthand, the ocean depths amplified human powerlessness. In fact Newton once ridiculed a small embellished ceremonial ship the Italians called the Bucentaur. Once a year it was loaded with dignitaries and religious leaders and sailed out to perform a peacemaking ceremony with the sea, something analogous to a mythical marriage complete with a gold ring tossed overboard. “When the honor and government of Venice are shipped on board the Bucentaur,” Newton once wrote, “the pilot is obliged by his office to take an oath that he will bring the vessel safely back again, in defiance of winds and weather. Vain mortals!”

Vain mortals cannot defy wind or weather or guarantee anyone’s safety on the sea. Christ, the God-man, can. Not only is the ship’s wheel in the hands of Christ, so also are the winds and the waves. Together, Christ wields power to orchestrate those winds and waves to carry out his ultimate design for our voyage of faith.

For those who love God, “all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28). This promise is easier to affirm when you are dockside, rather than when you are trying to get a grip on the Pilot in a tossing and turning ship. For believers, life in the open sea is a daily test of faith. “Me-thinks I may sum up all my wants and prayers in one sentence,” Newton once lamented, “Lord, give me faith!”

The battle for faith was coming for Betsy. It is coming for us all. Our infallible Pilot will keep the ship afloat and on course when the storm slams into the hull. The storm will drop us to our knees and strengthen our grip. But that’s what the storms are for. Clinging to money and worldly securities leads to certain shipwreck. Our battle is to trust the infallible Pilot who guides and steers this rollicking ship over the deep blue sea, and into the port of eternal rest.

Resources for Growing and Sowing

In keeping with the parables of the four soils, here’s a few resources to help our listening to (growing) and speaking (sowing) the word of Jesus. Several of these we have already shared, but if you haven’t utilized them, now’s your second chance!


  1. The Dwell App is still free for North Wakers! This is one way to literally listen to God’s Word and ‘soak it in’. I’ve been especially helped by listening to the Psalms before bedtime. If you haven’t downloaded it yet, do it!
  2. The Lumo Project is a film version of the Gospel of Mark containing an unabridged narration of Mark’s gospel. (They have actually done this with all four gospels). Very well done and a great way to ‘bring the text to life’.

Also available on Netflix!


  1. I was encouraged this week by a conversation between Taylor Turrington and Rebecca McLaughlin on engaging unbelievers in conversation about God. Worth a listen.
  2. Larry previously posted this excellent guide for reading the Gospel of Mark with an unbelieving friend.
  3. And here’s an article on “reading the Bible with non-Christian friends” with some good tips and insight on how to begin that process.