Mark 1:14,15

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

An Undesigned Coincidence.

An undesigned coincidence happens where one passage might leave us with questions and another passage gives us the answers to those questions. This is one such occasion.

JtB has been put in prison and Mark makes no attempt to tell us why. Matthew 4:3, however, does. He tells us it was because John had been calling out Herod’s sin in sleeping with his brother’s wife.

These types of ‘fill in’ details are all over the gospels. In fact they’re all over the Bible and far from proving the Gospels are false because they ‘don’t agree’, such discrepancies in the gospel accounts are very strong evidence that the gospels really are eyewitness accounts, AND the differences are strong evidence there was no collusion. I’ve heard people say this (or something like it) ‘you can’t trust the Bible—it’s full of contradictions!’ Don’t forget the basic rule about what to remember when someone makes a claim: they have the burden of proof. You don’t have to refute their claim, they have to support it. Try asking some form of the following questions:

  1. What do you mean by that?
  2. Show me some of these contradictions.
  3. Show me how they are contradictions and
  4. Explain to me WHY they make the Bible untrustworthy.
  5. If I can show you that they are NOT, in fact contradictions, but expected discrepancies between eyewitness accounts, does that mean you’ll trust the Bible?.

Finally, you could ask: ‘does that mean that if I find, or see a contradiction between accounts of something in the news (say, between the BBC’s reporting and ITV’s reporting of the same event) that I can dismiss it as untrustworthy and to be ignored? Or that if I see an inconsistency in YOU and what you say, that I can dismiss you and your opinion?’

Just take away from this point that there is no need to be side-swiped or de-railed if this happens.

Stepping Out from Behind.

Jesus doesn’t preach at all while JtB is still preaching. It is only after JtB is imprisoned that Jesus starts his preaching. Sometimes someone has to stand aside before you can step up. Elijah/Elisha. Barnabas/Paul. Moses/Joshua. The list can go on, but bluntly, sometimes it is necessary to step out from behind someone’s shadow in order to flourish in ministry.

Also note, if you are to encourage someone into a more fruitful ministry, sometimes the best way to do it is to step aside yourself! JtB was put in prison, but I think that he would have willingly stepped aside anyway. When JtB spoke of Jesus, he said this: : ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him’. The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less’ (John 3:28-30).

King Saul didn’t step aside for David, he didn’t want to – and we the Bible tells us how that turned out. When David started to move in the power of God, we read that Saul became jealous of him. At one point the Bible describes his feelings towards David like this: “Saul was very angry; this refrain displeased him greatly. “They have credited David with tens of thousands,” he thought, “but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?” And from that time on Saul kept a close eye on David” (1 Samuel 18:8,9). This quickly developed into open and outright hostility. Ultimately he sought his death and David had to flee and hide.

This kind of thing is far more common than people care to believe. Few people would willingly encouraging someone and standing back so they can flourish. To go graciously from the top-billing to second place; stepping aside so someone else can step up, goes against the spirit of today. People far more frequently do everything they can to hang on to the status or position they have. They often resort to underhand, and sometimes illegal, methods to do so.

At the start of the Barnabas/Saul partnership, Barnabas was the prominent figure. But he didn’t stay that way: Paul quickly became more prominent. So for example the story in Acts 13 where Paul and Barnabas were sent for by the proconsul, we read at the start they are described as Barnabas and Paul (v7), but at the end, the order has changed to Paul and Barnabas (v42).

Who are we? Do we encourage people and step aside for them? Or do we have to be removed so someone can flourish? Are we content to give others space to minister even if it means we will have to take a back seat? I pray that I will be one who encourages and builds up – God knows there are too many people around who want to drag down.

So, we need to know when to step out on our own and when to step aside so others can step up.

An identical Message

At this point in his ministry, the message Jesus preaches is IDENTICAL to the message JtB preached. We have a peculiar addiction to ‘originality’ in today’s culture. There is an almost universal approval of people who bring new things to us. New inventions, new thoughts, new ways of doing things: The basic rule of our age is still New=Good, and Old=Bad.

People who are ‘pioneers’ are generally lauded, while those whose nature is more conservative (and I’m not talking about political allegiances here) are looked down on and in some cases dismissed and ridiculed. This is also true in the church. We tell jokes to ridicule those who dislike change (how many … does it change to change a light bulb?). Though usually it is far more nuanced than the jokes suggest. Most simply don’t approve of change for the sake of change. they have computers, they drive new cars, they have microwaves, they are quite happy to adopt new and unfamiliar things if they can see the benefit. We seem to be constantly straining and chasing new. It started with pews v chairs, although pews themselves are relatively new. Before the reformation (16th century), churches didn’t have pews in them! Dress codes have changed and still change. We also argue about projectors /OHP rather than books, rock bands rather than choirs, things that change the atmosphere – stained glass windows have made way for smoke machines and light shows. I know of a church locally where the worship team were not permitted to choose songs that were older than 5 years!

But the Bible’s message is both new AND old! Sound’s odd and we’ll get mental constipation if we really try to unwrap it, but we must know that the promise of salvation is not a new thing.

We are in a new covenant, we have a new testament, Jesus says ‘behold I do a new thing!’, We became a new creation when we became Christians. Yet these new things are all rooted in the Old. The Old Testament points to Jesus, the gospel is first prophesied in the garden when God says to the devil:

“I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.”

This is Genesis 3:15 and is generally understood to be the very first declaration of the Gospel. Jesus is prophesied throughout the Old Testament, there are literally hundreds of them from Genesis right through to Malachi. We read some of them at Christmas …

  • Micah about Jesus being born in Bethlehem,
  • Hosea about the escape to Egypt,
  • Jeremiah about the slaughter of the innocents,
  • Isaiah about Mary being a virgin.
  • Matthew even mentions a prophecy about him being called a Nazarene (which doesn’t appear in the OT scriptures we have).

When Zechariah in the temple is filled with the Holy Spirit and prophecies, he praises God and says that the salvation which has come was promised long ago through the prophets.

Luke 1:69-72 (NIV)

He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,

There are 27 direct quotations of the OT prophets in the Gospel of Mark, 54 in Matthew, 24 in Luke, and 14 in John. When we add in prophecies quoted elsewhere in the New Testament and those referred to but not directly quoted, the number increases to a total of well over 300.

Don’t think for a moment that the Christian faith is some kind of cobbled-up rehash of Judaism in the first century. And don’t, whatever you do, dismiss the Old Testament as irrelevant to Christians.

What is the message Jesus preached?

“The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

There are three facets to Jesus’ message:

1. Heaven is near

On more than one occasion in the past, when ministering to people, I’ve had them say “where is God in my suffering?”. The ‘where is God in this?’ question is usually meant as an accusation and not a question. I have pondered this as people don’t want God around when everything is fine. He ‘cramps their style’. John talks about people preferring the darkness to the light. John 3:19 says: “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil”.

My point here is this : God isn’t a good luck charm you can take out and put away when you feel like it. You can’t have God close by, offering comfort and relief when you’re suffering and then push Him away when you’re in rebellion and sin. It doesn’t work like that.

If you want God to be with you when you’re suffering, understand this: He’ll also be with you when you’re being horrid and gossiping about that person you don’t like very much. He’ll be there when you’re pilfering supplies from the office store cupboard, He’ll be right beside you as you pretend you don’t see or hear the hungry homeless person in the shop doorway and walk straight past. God is way closer than you think or realise and He knows every thought of your heart and sees every action you take. Even the things you do in secret.

In fact God is not just nearby, for the Christian, He is actually right here with us. The Bible says it in a number of ways, and there are literally dozens of declarations about God being close or with his people:

  1. Jesus is with us: One of his names is exactly that. the one we tend to reserve for Christmas: Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14), which means “God with us”. Or Jesus saying When 2 or 3 are gathered together (Matthew 18:20); or Revelation 3:20 “I stand at the for and knock, if anyone hears my voice I will come in and eat with him and her with me”
  2. The Holy spirit is with us: If you love me, keep my commandments and I will ask the father and He will send the Holy Spirit who will live with you and be IN you (cf. John 14:15-17)
  3. God is with us, Prevalent throughout the Old Testament, here are just a couple of references … “The LORD is with you when you are with him.” 2 Chronicles 15:2 which is echoed in James 4:8 “come near to God and He will come near to you”.

Psalm 73 talks of God being near :

  1. Psalm 73:23 “I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand”.
  2. Psalm 73:27-28 “Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds”.

2. Repent

I spoke about what repentance is when we looked at JtB’s message at the end of July. For that reason, I’m not even going to open this particular part of Jesus’ message. Other than to note this.

Repentance is not simply a feeling of remorse, Repentance has to do with the mind, the will. At its core, ‘re-pent’ quite literally means to change your mind. When we repent before God, we are changing our minds, our will from our old way of thinking, our old lives to a new way.

On more than one occasion, my mum has said to me “I wish I could have your faith”, as if there is some uncontrollable aspect to whether we believe or not. This is simply rubbish, our repentance and faith is NOT emotionally determined. It is rooted in our minds and our wills NOT in our emotions and circumstances.

So, repentance is a CHOICE, not a feeling. We sin because we choose to and we repent because we choose to. (incidentally, the same is true of sin as well people sin because they choose to. “it’s not my fault, I couldn’t help it it’s just the way I am”, is not an excuse for sin).

3. Believe

The word also means trust in – which indicates not just our thought or emotional assent, but also something which works through into our actions. As a man believes, so he is (cf. Proverbs 23:7).

I’ve noticed recently as I’ve watched discussions between Christians and Atheists that atheists are denying that they have a positive belief. They will say something like ‘I’m not saying God doesn’t exist, I just lack a belief that He does’. I think that they do this to shift the burden of proof. In not making a claim, they think they are side-stepping the burden of proof. The general rule is that when someone makes some kind of claim, the burden of proof is theirs to justify and prove it, not yours to refute it. This is true in all discussions, not just spiritual ones.

If someone says this, remember, every negative statement like this has a corresponding positive belief. Everyone believes something about God. If someone is intransigent and refuses to accept that their non-belief is legitimate position, they are NOT atheist.

Atheism is the positive belief and claim that there is no God. But in Greek, when the ‘a’ is added to something, it makes the meaning ‘no …’ or not, in the same way we might use ‘dis’ in English. ‘dis’-abled means not-abled or put an other way no-ability. a-theism means no-God.

Lack of belief is actually not ‘a-theism’, but ‘a-pistis’.

Such people are simply commenting in their own mental condition. They are saying nothing about God at all.

Fine. but then they have no ‘pony in the race’ about whether God exists or not, and certainly cannot reasonably make any judgments at all about Him. It makes no sense at all to have an opinion about something you lack a belief in. In fact it is disingenuous.

Just like repentance, faith is a choice

  1. Hebrews 11:1 “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see”.
  2. Romans 10:9 “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in you heat that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved”.
  3. Ephesians 2:8 “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith (and even this is a gift from God)”.

The reformers said that faith has three parts:

  1. Notitia – or UNDERSTANDING the content of our belief (Who Jesus is, That he died and rose etc). There are some people who are profoundly ignorant of the gospel – in fact Biblical Illiteracy is a real problem. People not knowing even basic stuff about the gospel.
  2. Assensus – The CONVICTION that what we believe is actually true. (Nige my brother knows the content, but believes it’s all a load of hogwash for example so he has the “notitia” but not the “assensus”).
  3. Finally we have this thing called Fiducia. It is one thing to give an intellectual assent to a proposition, and even to believe it is true. But it is something else to place personal trust in it (Blondell and the wheelbarrow). Fiducia is an ACTION, it is the outworking of our conviction. It is entrusting ourselves to our saviour.

The reformers said anything less than that is not actually saving faith. Romans 10:14 says this “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”

See the progression?

  1. Someone preaches (Notitia) – understanding the content
  2. People Believe (Assensus) – believing what is preached is true
  3. Calling on Him (Fiducia) – placing personal trust in him

All 3 elements are present – In other words, you have to believe something, you have to believe it is true, and you have to act on that belief.

This is hinted at in the book of James: “But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?” (James 2:18-20). Genuine faith, says James, can be seen in our actions.

That being the case, if true faith includes an element of action, what actions do we see in someone who has genuine faith? Is faith ‘measurable’? How?

Jesus says to the people ‘why do you call me Lord, Lord and not do what I say?’ (Luke 6:46). The main characteristic of faith is obedience to Jesus. I am not a huge fan of the WWJD wrist band, but it does, actually bring us back regularly to the way our faith should work out. We are disciples of Jesus, and a disciple should be like their teacher.

Luke 6:40 (ESV): “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher”.

Our model Jesus says He only does what the Father does, and if we are to follow Him effectively, we are to be like Him. What does that mean? Jesus gave us an example in John 13 when He washes the disciples feet. At the end of it, He asks if they understand what He has done (John 13: 12), and explains that,  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you (John 13:14, 15).

The Bible talks about becoming conformed to the image of God’s son (Romans 8:29). Paul talks in 1 Corinthians 15:49 of us bearing the image of Christ, just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man and in 2 Corinthians 3:18 he says, we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image. John also picks up on this image and writes, what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him (1 John 3:2).

Romans 12:2 gives us a hint as to HOW. Just as Jesus speaks of the real person being not in his actions, but in his inner man, Paul says we will be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

So we’re back at our faith being rooted in our minds and our will not our emotions and our feelings. Faith is something WE have control over.

Finally, It seems to me that faith can be different sizes – and that its size can change.

Low Faith:

  1. I believe help my unbelief (Mark 9:24)
  2. JtB had low faith (Luke 7:18-35)
  3. Faith the size of a mustard seed (Matthew 17:20)
  4. The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5)

Great Faith:

  1. Jesus about the centurion in Luke 7:9 // Matthew 8:10 says “Never have I seen such great faith!”
  2. Matthew 15:28 Jesus tells the woman whose child was ill that she had great faith.

So if our faith can ebb and flow like the tide, times when it feels so great and others when we feel like it’s non-existent, what do we do when our faith is low? Here are some thoughts for us to ponder.

  1. The important thing is not the size of our faith but its object! Mark 11:22 “have faith in God”. Means we don’t have to have great faith to get results, ‘cos the results are not dependant on the size or strength of your faith, but on the size and strength of your God!!! Acts 20:21, 24:24, 26:18; Ephesians 1:15; Colossians 2:5; Philemon 5 all talk about faith in Christ. Never forget the object of your faith – that’s what you put your trust in. Some people put their trust in their faith rather than putting their faith in GOD.
  2. Get to know God – in the Scripture we can find him and in finding him, our faith will grow: Romans says “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (Romans 10:17) and Colossians says “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” (Colossians 3:16). Notice how the message of Christ, fellowship, (i.e. One another), the word of God (Psalms) and worship (singing hymns and spiritual songs to God with gratitude in our hearts) all come together in the growth and development of our faith. Want to grow in your faith? Ensure you find yourself in the company of other believers whenever you can and ENCOURAGE one another. Experientially that is also true – the times my faith has waned the most have been those times when I’ve allowed other things to get in the way of fellowship.

If the last thing I said has any truth in it, if it is through hearing the word, and the scriptures tell us to let that message dwell in us richly as we spend time together, particularly in worship, I can’t think of a better response to this morning’s message than to spend time in each other’s company encouraging each other, singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs together. We’ll move into a time of worship now, (podcast listeners – go and find a fellowship and JOIN it!!). AND we’ll come together this evening for more of the same – don’t forget 5pm for a fellowship meal together and then we’ll worship and praise God from 6pm. I’d love it if you came!!

And as a final word, always remember that if you follow Jesus’ instructions, you transfer from an enemy of God to being someone who doesn’t “belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved”. (Hebrews 10:39)