Posts filed under 'weakness of discipleship'
If anyone was qualified to write about the weakness of true discipleship, it was John Mark. As a young man, Mark received a firsthand view of the new movement that would eventually conquer the mighty Roman Empire itself. It is widely believed that it was Mark’s home that hosted the Passover meal in the upper room; it was this very upper room that would later house a night and day prayer meeting in which 120 disciples tarried until the breakthrough of Pentecost. Thus, Mark’s home would be the very one that would be a key meeting place for the early church during the imprisonment of Peter. Upon his miraculous release in Acts 12, it was the first place he went to before moving on to “another place”.
Thus, John Mark’s home was a key hub of early New Testament Christianity. He had the unique privilege of having met or interacted with, early on, every key leader of the Gospels and the book of Acts. It would soon be time for him to be summoned to the forefront of the leadership of the Holy Spirit, as it was time for the movement to begin to move westward, towards the Greek and Macedonian regions. The young eyewitness to history was about to become a part of the story in a dynamic way.
Weakness under pressure
It was John Mark’s cousin, Barnabas, who initially opened the door for him. Barnabas had been sent by the apostolic leadership of the Jerusalem Church a year earlier to Antioch to see what the Holy Spirit was doing in that city - for the reports of His activity there had traveled all the way to Jerusalem, 300 miles to the south. Thus Barnabas made the 10-15 day journey from Israel to what is now the southern tip of modern-day Turkey. Because of the astonishing revival that was taking place there, he knew that more help was needed to serve what the Lord was doing. Of course, it would be a month or more before more apostolic leadership could arrive from Jerusalem.
Thus Barnabas decided to make a shorter journey westward to Tarsus, where a young apostle named Saul had been sent by the brethren a few years earlier because of threats to his life. Barnabas himself had been a part of this process, introducing the new brother to the apostolic leadership after they had received Saul with suspicion. He became a dogged apologist for the faith, frustrating the Hellenists in Jerusalem to the point of attempted murder. Barnabas knew that this young lightning rod was only 100 miles west along the coast, so he made the ten-day trip to Tarsus and back to mobilize Saul for the revival in Antioch. After a year of successful ministry there, the two of them were sent back to Jerusalem with both prophetic information and provision for a coming famine that would strike the Roman Empire.
When the time came for the two of them to return to Antioch, they invited John Mark to go with them. Not long after they arrived, a prayer and fasting meeting preceded the in-breaking of the Holy Spirit to launch a team led by Saul and Barnabas to Cyprus and Southern Turkey, just northwest of Tarsus. Thus John Mark was appointed as their assistant. John Mark, however, had already established a history of fear and trembling under pressure. Most scholars believe that Mark was referring to himself as the naked young man that fled from the Garden of Gethsemane, leaving his expensive linen cloak behind in his terror when young men from the contingent there to arrest Jesus laid hold of him.
Thus Mark did not respond well when the missions endeavor began to move to new frontiers. There were minor challenges in Cyprus, including a “certain sorcerer” named Elymas, who opposed them vehemently. Once they reached the shores of southern Turkey and the port of Perga, the young assistant left the team and returned home, to Jerusalem. This failure to see the journey to the end would haunt Mark a few years later, when Paul and Barnabas set themselves to return to the original cities where they planted churches to strengthen and encourage them. The decision of the Jerusalem Council had been established, and after a season in Antioch it was time to establish the decree among the brethren who had been troubled by Paul’s enemies. There was one problem: Barnabas was determined to take John Mark with them again.
Thus began a conflict that became a contention “so sharp” that they parted ways with one another. Paul chose Silas as his ministry partner - probably having young Timothy in the back of his mind, knowing that he was returning to Derbe and Lystra. Barnabas, of course, took Mark and returned to the place of his previous failure: Cyprus. Whatever Barnabas did on that journey, the results were remarkable.
Finding Simon Peter
John Mark left for Cyprus not long after the Jerusalem Council, which took place sometime near 50-51 AD. What was as remarkable, if not more so, than Barnabas severing ties with Paul, was that Mark signed up again and faced the shame and the sting of his earlier failure. He wanted to press on - though he had departed early from the first missionary journey, he had not quit in relationship to his calling. Thus his next assignment from the Lord fit perfectly.
No one is sure how long Mark traveled with Barnabas, but what is clear is that, sometime over the next decade he ended up joining Simon Peter and becoming his assistant. Theirs was an ironically glorious partnership - two godly men who had struggled with failure and flight under pressure - both knowing firsthand the weakness of discipleship. It is beautiful to me that they served the Lord together. This quote from Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis in the early 2nd Century, describes their ministry together, most likely in Rome:
“And the presbyter said this. Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements.”
I appreciate Edgar Goodspeed’s interpretation of this fragment of information:
“…it seems to bring up the picture of Peter, an old man, visiting Rome in his later years and there preaching in his native Aramaic to the Greek congregation. They must have listened with rapt attention as the old apostle told of his walks and talks with Jesus in Galilee, and of the swift tragedy of betrayal and crucifixion which had followed in Judea. Then suddenly Peter is himself snatched from them and suffers martyrdom. It was one of the most famous of all martyrdoms; St Peter’s marks the supposed spot on the Vatican Hill, and legends like the stirring “Domine, quo vadis?” have gathered about it. It must have filled the Roman congregation with grief. No more would they hear the old man uttering his inimitable reminiscences of Jesus, for with his death a priceless treasure of such memories perished from the earth.
But not entirely. For as the old man had preached, there had stood beside him, of course, now one, now another of them, who could understand his Aramaic speech and immediately translate it into Greek for his Roman hearers. He had used these memories only to illustrate and strengthen his own preaching, and from hearing some incidents over and over a number of times and putting them into Greek, a capable and alert interpreter would come to have a very definite memory of their wording. Out of such memories, Papias means to say, one of these interpreters named Mark composed his gospel.”
What a glorious and awesome ministry John Mark had stumbled into. Peter called Mark “his son” (1 Pet. 5:13). He went from weakness and failure to a key position in the early church - interpreting the stories and sayings about Jesus. Those very accounts and sermons would go on to constitute his gospel, the first such work in church history. It must have seemed to be an unbelievable, yet happy turn of events for the Apostle Paul - who would end his life counting John Mark as one of his most faithful and loyal friends. This would be true for Paul even when all others had fled and abandoned him (2 Tim. 4:11). Much like Simon becoming “the Rock” that Jesus could build upon, a steady and grounded lover of God, John Mark would end his days as one of the most faithful, trustworthy, and bold witnesses for the gospel in all the world.
One of the glorious realities of the weakness of discipleship is that His power is made perfect in the process, and the end of the story is all the more stunning as a result.
April 29th, 2008
The easiest way to summarize the first part of this series, and the great problem of true discipleship, is found in Job 36:
“Behold, God is great, and we do not know Him;Nor can the number of His years be discovered.”
Again, two key points from part one: when I speak about the “weakness of discipleship”, I am speaking about the difficulty of a noble pursuit, not of the practice of discipleship itself. Secondly, I define “true discipleship” as the earnest and sincere desire to become like our Master in values, lifestyle, mindset, and desire - amongst many other categories that could be listed here. It is the very definition of discipleship that exposes the grand impossibility of our common goal, that we want to be, in essence, “perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect”, as Jesus mandated in Matthew 5:48. As such, of course, I believe that we will be perfected by the perfect work of the grace of God - and that this inward transformation is one that is God-initiated and God-directed. Righteousness, in other words, is first and foremost imputed before it is imparted.
Yet, it is imparted. The manner in which I express in humble obedience the righteousness of God imparted into my thinking, my understanding, and my responses in tenderness to His value system is the manner in which I “work out my salvation with fear and trembling” related to that which God is doing within me by grace to will and to do according to His good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13). In other words, the work of grace through the ministry of the Holy Spirit first gives me power on the inside to want (or “will”) to do other than that which I had been doing. This is called “repentance“. Then, there is power from the Spirit of God yet again to do those things that please God rather than please my carnal flesh. Then, as I continue to walk in agreement with God related to His value system, the Holy Spirit operates within me to transform my desires - over time the things I loved I now either despise (sin) or, in process, simply feel ambivalent towards (weights that entangle). Things I used to dread, like prayer and the bible, I now love. Fasting, serving, sharing the gospel - all of these things are examples of desires that were imparted and cultivated in the place of prayer and fellowship with the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14).
The weakness of process
The problem lies in the time that it takes between our immaturity, brokenness, and weakness that marks the beginning of our journey and the power of God made perfect in our weakness as we persevere. Many believers long for (depending on their spiritual culture) that one “altar call” to be the moment in which God breaks into their lives dramatically and delivers them from all of their weakness. For others, it could be that one great counseling session, or that one great book that suddenly transforms their lives. This moment will never come. Christianity is not, and has never been, a glorified self-help program. Though the appeal for some is the invitation to go from weakness to strength, or messy to capable, gifted, awesome, and confident, Christianity is a far different invitation to the lost and broken.
In other words, the invitation of the gospel is a foolish one (1 Cor. 1:18): to gain everything later, one must lose everything now. We have the opportunity to go from broken, sinful weakness to voluntary weakness through the cross. We journey from insecurity and frustration with our faults and flaws to joy, peace, stability, and confidence not because we are healed of our flaws and made into an “uber-human” who no longer fails or stumbles in thought, word, and deed. We grow in confidence and joy when the reality of God’s great love and enjoyment of us in our weakness strikes our heart. We become emotionally stable, tender in heart, alive on the inside and filled with peace when we learn that we are loved and a lover of God from the first moment we said “yes” to His invitation to follow Him. If we do nothing else in life but rest in that knowledge, we have won.
Yet the invitation to become a true disciple involves taking that biblical insight and allowing it to empower confidence to follow Him all the days of our lives. The revelation of the tender love of Christ, the “love of God and the patience of Christ” (2 Thess. 3:5), gives us courage to pray always and not lose heart (Lk. 18:1) when we stumble in the journey. We can sign up for the weakness of the process of transformation on the inside that works its way to our outward man if we believe that He is tender and patient with us as we grope towards Him as young, new, weak disciples. In our weakness, we don’t draw strength from being a little more capable than the brother next to us. We draw strength from His fiery, committed, covenantal love that is willing to see the process through to the end, faithful to complete the good work that was begun within the very moment we said “yes” to Him.
Broken weakness to voluntary weakness
Once we embark on the journey of true discipleship, we give ourselves to a journey from initial immaturity, weakness, brokenness, foolishness, carnal thinking, darkened understanding, areas of habitual compromise, and unrestrained emotion (and emoting) to later maturity and temperance, or restraint in all things. In other words, we go from an ungoverned and unrestrained lifestyle (tempered by laws and social norms) to a self-governed and voluntarily restrained lifestyle (tempered by authentic love).
It is, of course, a very long process of training, learning, failing, and repenting. It is a process that takes our whole life (and more) to fully grasp and walk out. Jesus expressed this perfectly. True discipleship is the desire to do the same. Weak discipleship is the reality of our inability to do the same, or even grasp why we should at times. After all, who really signs up for “Christianity” under the banner of leaving, denying, forsaking, restraining, and fighting a war against the sinful passions of the heart every moment of every day of our lives until we see Him face to face? Who desires to say no to the things of this world that feed our brokenness, weakness, and carnality to walk out a lifestyle of voluntary weakness that includes praying (saying things to God that He tells us to tell Him), fasting (not eating, getting physically weak, tired, and grumpy), serving (doing things for others that you would rather they do for you), giving (possibly making a ton of money that you never spend on your pleasures, but rather give away like mad), and forgiving (laying down your personal rights when mistreated and actually hoping, at times, justice isn’t done to right a wrong done to you).
It takes great strength to choose weakness. It is one of the most difficult journeys anyone could choose to begin. It is one of the costliest decisions one could make. It is the way of the Master, the brilliance of His leadership - He made the bar high and the cost great to sift and sort through the many reasons and hidden ambitions of those who would say “yes” to an invitation to authentic, weak discipleship. Saying “yes” was meant to be hard to do. Staying in that continual “yes” was meant to be harder still. Yet, what options do we have? Saying “no” is ultimately much more difficult a journey to take, and the cost of refusal even greater. For in the grace of God, His commandments are not burdensome, but they are life to the soul and blessing to the faithful.
This is what twelve young adults found out for themselves, nearly 2000 years ago.
Next: We actually talk about the Gospel of Mark.
April 15th, 2008
In beginning this latest series, I want to make clear that the “weakness” of discipleship does not refer to the practice itself as a weak endeavor. Rather, I am referring to Mark’s examination of the messiness of true discipleship through the lens of the weakest men to ever say “yes” to Jesus. The subject of weakness as a whole has captivated me over the past month, for reasons that will hopefully unfold with clarity as I return to a regular writing, study, and prayer schedule. So, when I speak here of the weakness of discipleship I am speaking of personal weakness and the pursuit of Christlike righteousness, holiness, and perspective.
Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown…
To say “yes” to follow and become like someone else is an intensely frustrating undertaking. An elite athlete is still subject to the system of the coach, and must submit his personal preferences to the will of his leader. He or she must subdue and restrain their incredible gifts and talents in a manner that allows for the rest of the “symphony” to function in tight harmony. These realities of team life separate championship teams from merely successful ones. Thus a once in a generation athlete like Michael Vick was forced to labor in vain while another once in a generation star such as Michael Jordan won multiple championships. The former had incredible gifts but ended the careers of multiple coaches, all of whom failed to convince Vick that the team’s success meant personal restraint. For the “running quarterback” to win, he simply had to choose not to run.
Such a weekly act of discipline proved to great a task - in the end, for Vick, the ego proved too great an obstacle. In Jordan’s case, the ego was a far greater force - rarely has any sport seen arrogance, anger, and inflated ego, despite what the sneaker commercials presented. Yet, in the end, he was confronted with the weakness of subduing his ego and restraining his abilities to allow his teammates to flow and participate with one plan that flowed from head coach rather than his ability to get past the man defending him. What Jordan found was that, when his teammates were uninvolved and outside of the natural “flow” of movement that constitutes a healthy offensive strategy, there was always another defender to have to beat. One on five is always impossible, as Jordan found out dramatically in 1986 when he scored 63 points against the Boston Celtics, one of the greatest teams of that era, and still lost the playoff series.
This would be Jordan’s lot for the next five years - singular greatness overshadowed by devastating playoff losses. The accusations began to multiply and the pressure began to increase - all of which were great blows to his ego. He finally came to understand that true greatness was not knit to individual brilliance but team success. Thus, he bought into a larger plan, or system of play, which was predicated more on passing and movement. This system required that someone else initiate the plan; at times, it moved the ball through the center (who, on those teams, was often the most unskilled player on the team), and it reacted to the defense rather than barreling into the teeth of five opposing elite athletes.
This, of course, was hard for Jordan to buy into. Why? His greatest issue, other than trusting his head coach, was trusting his teammates to make sound decisions. Early on in his career, they had not. Yet, his own efforts were proving fruitless and thus he was left with little choice in the matter. To win, he had to restrain himself and allow his teammates to assert themselves. The key to Jordan’s success was not that he learned to do this 100% of the time, rather, for him success was found in adhering to this principle 75% of the time. As a once-in-a-lifetime superstar, he felt he had earned the ability to deviate from the plan and assert himself in certain key moments. Still, for Jordan, restraining himself for to allow for authentic team dynamics at that level proved enough to win six championships over the next ten years.
As Paul said, in 1 Corinthians 9:25-28: “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate (restrained) in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.”
Infinite Power Tempered Every Day For 33 Years
The ultimate display of restraint, however, was found in the earthly ministry of Jesus 2000 years ago. What Jesus is asking of us, He modeled to perfection: He demonstrated the wisdom of power restrained, or “meekness”. While the ego and arrogance of man makes true meekness seemingly impossible, the desire of Jesus to make Himself “of no reputation” made meekness attractive. It is stunning to imagine that Jesus can make something that men find weak, foolish, and contemptible attractive as we begin to walk according to the Spirit rather than our own understanding and sensibilities.
For even what Michael Jordan did in restraining his own power was for his own sake - as is the case with every athlete who competes for a prize apart from God. Yet Jesus did it for no glory or reward of His own, but for the glory of His Father. He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death - even the death of the cross. He humbled Himself, in other words, to the point of personal humiliation for the sake of the exaltation of His Father and the interests of the saints. Who would willingly and wholeheartedly suffer great anguish and humiliation for the sake of others, with no thought of personal gain? I want to pour out my life while maintaining as much personal dignity as possible. Jesus, on the other hand, made Himself of no reputation 33 years before the cross!
In other words, how humiliating could the cross have been in comparison to “taking on the form of a bondservant” and “coming in the likeness of men”? After all, He did not consider it robbery to be equal with God. What did this mean? It meant, for 33 years, Jesus joyfully stuck with the plan of His “coach” rather than baptizing the earth with fire according to His “distress” (Lk. 12:50). It meant, for 33 years, the greatest revivalist in history stayed mostly hidden, and, during His 3 1/2 public ministry years, mostly in the outskirts of His own nation. Imagine a modern revivalist operating in signs and wonders conducting their ministry primarily in North Dakota and Montana rather than the cities and the population centers?
It meant, for 33 years, always having the right answer in every conversation but mostly letting everyone else speak. It meant allowing His earthly father to teach Him carpentry, when His resume included “stretching out the heavens like a curtain” and “laying the beams of His upper chambers in the waters” (Ps. 104:2-3). It meant that most of the things He preached and taught were misunderstood and misinterpreted (Isa. 6:9-10) - even by those most loyal to Him (Mk. 6:52). Can you imagine knowing that almost every sermon you would ever preach would not be heard? As a preacher, I naturally gauge my success by the response of the congregation - Jesus was faced with a people that were continually astonished and amazed by His teaching, yet astonishingly unresponsive and dull. John the Baptist had the same problem (Matt. 11:17).
The dilemma of discipleship
How can I be like One who was so given with understanding that is so alien to my own? Why did Jesus do the things that He did - what was He thinking? How can my thinking be formed in a similar manner?
Thus, the great problem of my life can be summed up like this: true discipleship means that I have to follow in the footsteps of the One I love and desire to obey. It means that I have to buy into His mindset, and a never-ending series of “whys” behind His “what”. I have to love what He loves, and hate what He hates. The weakness of my pursuit, of course, is this:
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,Nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,So are My ways higher than your ways,And My thoughts than your thoughts.”
- Isaiah 55:8-9
It is, on the surface, an impossible proposition - a preposterous invitation. We have been invited to embark on a journey that begins with our sincere “yes” and ends with a complete transformation that helps us reason and choose in like manner to the One who is discipling us. The Master has invited us to follow Him, and thus we are to deny ourselves and take up a cross in the great exchange. The question has been asked - what would a man give in exchange for his soul? The answer is found in the life of the Man who gave up everything to gain everything. To follow, I also must be crucified in Christ. While this sounds noble, I must confess that the outworking of this in my own life is so unglamourously awkward and foolish that it’s a wonder I am still saved.
Thankfully, nowhere is this dilemma more pronounced and precisely expressed than in the Gospel of Mark. The weakness of trying to emulate transcendent perfection, an other-worldly mindset and value system that my own sensibilities disagree with a good percentage of the time, is best examined through the lens of a group of young guys who were just like me. They were sincere, zealous, and passionate. They were also weak, foolish, ambitious, selfish, and often filled with unbelief. This is the portrait that Mark paints for us. The impossibility of what we are trying to do is often humorously described by Mark, who desired to give simple men like me hope that with God, all things are possible.
April 14th, 2008