This is our ninth week looking at the Gospel of Mark. Let’s read from chapter 3 together:
7 Jesus withdrew to the sea with His disciples; and a great multitude from Galilee followed; and also from Judea, 8 and from Jerusalem, and from Idumea, and beyond the Jordan, and the vicinity of Tyre and Sidon, a great number of people heard of all that He was doing and came to Him.
Notice how Mark repeats the size of the crowd: the great multitude in v. 7, the great number of people in v. 8. Repetition in the Bible is always important. In a culture in which they didn’t use underlining, they didn’t have highlighters, and stories were more spoken than written down anyway, they repeated things to emphasize them.
So Mark repeats it — he wants his reader to know that this was not just a big crowd, it was a big-big crowd! And they came from everywhere — he lists cities all around the region.
9 And He told His disciples that a boat should stand ready for Him because of the crowd, so that they would not crowd Him; 10 for He had healed many, with the result that all those who had afflictions pressed around Him in order to touch Him.
Jesus was very popular, and it’s understandable why he was! Here is a man who could heal any illness and was even driving demons from the countryside — of course he was popular!
Several times the gospels record Jesus using a boat to escape the crowds, especially following a major conflict with the religious and political leaders. Why did Jesus pull away like that? One writer says he did this because the time for the decisive, head-on confrontation with the Pharisees or the Romans had not yet arrived. Thus he pulls away after major conflicts in order to wait until it’s time for the big battle he knows is ahead: the cross.
However, there might have been an even more simple and practical reason for him to withdraw from the crowd. It was physically, mentally, emotionally demanding! If you’ve ever been in a big crowd, a big-big one — maybe after BSU game or a concert or some such event — you quickly realize how powerless you are. You’re swept along by just the sheer force of it, and there have been times before when I very seriously realized just how easy it would be to get trampled in a large crowd.
Now imagine that you’re not only in the crowd, but you’re the focal point of it! Everyone there is trying to touch you, to get you to stop walking and talk to them, or to keep walking and come with them. Tugged in every direction, every desperate person vying for your attention The whole thing must have been exhausting.
And so in a very human moment, Jesus had a boat kept ready for him in case he wanted it. One writer called it an “intensely practical precaution against future danger.” Notice that here is an example of how Jesus knows what it is like to be a human being living in the difficulties and dangers of this world.
In addition, something Brad spoke about a few weeks ago comes to mind: Jesus was famous, and this enormous, sometimes maybe even dangerous, crowd was following him, all because of his healings and exorcisms. However, it was not his goal to be a healer and exorcist. He only did those things to authenticate, to validate the one thing he really did want to do: preach about the kingdom of God.
Yes, Jesus was a physical and spiritual healer, but more than that, he was a preacher, a prophet, proclaiming the day of the Lord to his people. And he was unlike any other preacher they had ever heard. He spoke with authority and identified himself as God. Notice how this is the very thing the demons say about him:
11 Whenever the unclean spirits saw Him, they would fall down before Him and shout, “You are the Son of God!” 12 And He earnestly warned them not to tell who He was.
Now this is very interesting. This is a very strange feature of certain parts of the gospels, especially in Mark: Jesus often seems to be covering up his identity and telling people not to let anyone else know who he was. Some writers have have called this the “messianic secret.”
In this story, why did Jesus tell the demons to keep silent about his identity? Didn’t he want people to know he was God? Why wouldn’t he tell all the demons, That’s right! And make sure you keep telling everyone who I am! Wasn’t that the whole point?
Well, writers have suggested at least four different reasons why Jesus would do this. The first suggestion is that the demons were not worthy to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, the long-awaited savior of Israel. That is, the person and work of the Messiah are so holy and exalted that it was not fitting to allow filthy, corrupt demons to proclaim them.
A second suggestion is that the Jesus’ enemies were telling people that Jesus & the demons were allies — Mark mentions this later in this chapter (3.22). Therefore, permitting the demons to testify about him would be to confirm their allegations and poison people’s understanding of Jesus.
Third, most people in Jesus’ day had a flawed understanding of who the Messiah would be and what he would do. They usually thought of the Messiah as a national warrior-hero who would fight off the Romans and return Israel to the glory days of kings David and Solomon. But that was not what Jesus was trying to do at all. He knew that the Messiah was supposed to suffer & die for the sins of his people, not overthrow the Romans. So he told the demons to be silent so that he would have time redefine for the people who the Messiah was and what he would do.
And fourth, although the demons were telling the truth about Jesus’ identity, their intent was evil. They were not telling people who Jesus was so that everyone would rejoice and follow him. They were divulging his true identity in an attempt to thwart his ministry, not support it. Jesus told the demons to be quiet so he could make himself known on his own terms and in his own time.
Those are four different theories or suggestions about why Jesus would tell the demons to be quiet when they were telling the truth. Which one explains it? It seems to me like they all fit together and help explain this story, so I think the best explanation is probably a combination of the four reasons.
13 And He went up on the mountain and summoned those whom He Himself wanted, and they came to Him. 14 And He appointed twelve, so that they would be with Him and that He could send them out to preach, 15 and to have authority to cast out the demons.
This is a very natural transition point in Jesus’ ministry. The crowds were large, Jesus was exhausted, and there was a lot of work to be done! And so Jesus appoints the twelve apostles. Note that these twelve men were specifically chosen for this role by Jesus: (v. 13) “those whom He Himself wanted.” We will come back to that later, but I want you to notice it now.
The New Testament uses the word apostle a lot, but what is an apostle? What does that word mean? An apostle is at least three things: First, an apostle is someone who is sent, who goes on behalf of someone else. A messenger.
Second, an apostle is someone who speaks with the authority of the person sending them. They don’t speak their own ideas and with their own authority, but with the ideas and authority of the person who sent them. Think of an ambassador.
Third, an apostle is someone who is an eyewitness to who Jesus is, what he taught, and the things he did. They are especially eyewitnesses to the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Think of it this way: the apostles were participants with him in his earthly ministry, all the way to the end, and then they were the ones Jesus sent out to speak for him to all the world.
Note also that there were twelve apostles chosen. This is important because the number 12 was a very symbolic number to the people Jesus was with and it would have had obvious significance to them. To any Israelite, the number 12 would have brought to mind the 12 tribes that were the beginning of Israel.
Now, it’s very important to realize that in Jesus’ day, there was no such thing as the 12 tribes anymore. Centuries before, ten of the tribes had been captured by Assyria and dragged away to foreign lands as slaves. They all intermarried or died off, and those ten tribes disappeared from the earth. Further, even the two tribes that were still around had intermarried with other nations and the lineage back to the original founders of the nation of Israel was mixed and tainted.
No one in Jesus’ day would have missed what he was doing when he chose exactly 12 apostles. Everyone would have understood what he was saying: I am here to re-start Israel, to found the nation anew after centuries of demise. If you lived in Jesus’ day and seen him choose 12 apostles, you would have been very excited, maybe your heart would have lept, maybe you would have even shed a tear of joy.
Even so, the crowds misunderstood what Jesus really meant by this. They thought he was promising to fight off the Romans and regain Israel’s independence, but it is better understood this way: in choosing the 12 apostles, Jesus was founding a new Israel that is, as one writer put it, “composed of those who accepted Jesus as Messiah.”
So here Jesus chooses 12 men, 12 apostles, to help him start the new Israel. What does he do with them? V. 14 says they were to be with him — following him, watching him, hearing him, learning from him in a time of preparation.
V. 14 also says they were to be with him so that he might send them out. He sent them out, from the beginning of their work as apostles, before they really understood everything he was teaching and doing. He sent them out to do three primary tasks: to preach, to heal, and to cast out demons.
That is, they were healing people spiritually and physically to demonstrate that their preaching was true. What were they preaching? The same thing Jesus was in Mark 1.15: The Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe in the gospel.
16 And He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom He gave the name Peter), 17 and James, the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James (to them He gave the name Boanerges, which means, “Sons of Thunder”); 18 and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot; 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Him.
We look at this list and see mighty men because we have some awareness of what they did in the years following this. But that was not how it would have looked to you if you had been there when Jesus picked them!
If we had been in the crowd that day, we would’ve thought, What? These are the guys Jesus wants? He picked a handful of fishermen, a tax collector, and an assortment of other regular, average guys. There’s nothing special about them. They’re not famous or influential people, they don’t have public speaking experience or a top-notch education. They’re just average joes! How is he going to re-start Israel with a bunch of average joes?
In addition, when we read the rest of the gospels, we see how often these apostles Jesus chose just didn’t get it. They messed up and said the wrong things and did the wrong things so often! And then they eventually abandoned Jesus when he needed them the most. If we had watched the disciples during those three years of Jesus’ earthly ministry, starting with this story, I think we would have been surprised by the whole thing. How is he going to re-start Israel and change the world with those guys?
We will come back to that idea in a minute, but that is the story as Mark tells it. That is how Jesus’ early ministry grew from one man to thirteen. And it’s been growing ever since!
There are three things that Christians should learn from this story and one thing that Christians and non-Christians both should learn. They are all pretty straight to the point.
The first thing Christians should learn is, from the very beginning of his earthly work, Jesus’ desire was for his ministry to be replicated. This is not something that is tacked on to the end. The disciples didn’t decide one day, Hey, how are we going to keep this thing going? How can we make a movement out of this?
Rather, it was an integral part of Jesus’ vision for his ministry. From the first, he wanted what he said and did to be replicated. He wanted to train up apostles, who would train up other people, who would train up other people, and so on. And after all, that’s how we heard about Jesus, isn’t it? I heard from my parents, who heard from my aunt, who heard from a hippie pastor, and so on. The chain goes all the way back to the apostles themselves!
I think it’s important for Christians to see that this was a part of Jesus’ plan from the beginning. Replication is not something someone added on later. And because it was an integral part of Jesus’ plan for his kingdom, it’s something we who have been entrusted with his kingdom should be still doing now.
A second thing Christians can learn from this story is related to the first: Jesus did not invest equally in everyone. Rather, he was strategic in his investment. Remember that these 12 apostles were specifically chosen for this role by Jesus: (v. 13) “those whom He Himself wanted.” He could’ve chosen different people for the role. He could’ve chosen a different number of apostles.
But he deliberately chose to invest himself in these specific men, and he wanted them in turn to invest themselves in other people. If we are following his example here, we will be deliberate in choosing people to invest in for the Kingdom. Not that we will ignore everyone else, because Jesus certainly did not do that. But we will be strategic in our investment.
If we combine these first two things we should learn, Christians need to ask themselves these questions: How can I follow Jesus’ example in strategic replication? Into whom am I investing this treasure I have been given? In what way am I investing it?
The third thing Christians should learn from this story will help us answer those questions. Notice this: Jesus’ choice of apostles to strategically invest in was done with the wisdom of God and not the wisdom of man. As we noted earlier, these men were not the stars of their culture. Jesus did not choose the people we would have chosen. There were no rich & famous & influential people on the list.
Instead it’s a list of average joes. And if you know many of the stories in the rest of the four gospels, you know that they didn’t really get what Jesus was teaching and doing. They disappointed him all the time. Why would he choose these guys?
Think of it this way: If Jesus had chosen remarkable people to represent him, then they would get the credit when they did remarkable things. But by choosing unremarkable people to represent him, Jesus gets the credit when they did remarkable things. Jesus chose weak, inadequate people to do great things so that it would be clear that he was at work in them and through them.
And this leads us to the fourth thing we should learn from this story. This is the most amazing, and it’s the one that both Christians and non-Christians should learn. Think about the kind of disciples Jesus called:
Jesus’ choice of apostles included men he knew would fail & desert him. From what we can tell from the four gospels, 11 of the 12 men on this list utterly and completely failed & deserted Jesus in his hour of greatest need. It seems like only John stayed with him during his trial and execution.
But from this we learn that Jesus’ love for his disciples, and his desire to use them for his kingdom, does not depend on whether or not they deserve it. (repeat) And that includes you.
Whether or not you’re a Christian, that’s hard for us to believe. We are just so set in our belief that God’s love for us depends on our worthiness. We think God can only be happy with us if we’re doing a good job. But think about the apostles: they were not just unworthy, they were incredibly unworthy. They completely failed and deserted Jesus. And yet these are the disciples he called.
If someone completely failed and deserted you — for many of us in this room, specific people come to mind when I say that — if someone completely failed and deserted you, would you be able to trust them again? Would you be able to love them again? And here is the real contrast: would you be willing to die for them?
That’s an impossible stretch for us. Given enough time, maybe I could get over the hurt and move on. Maybe eventually I wouldn’t feel any animosity toward someone who utterly & completely failed me. But to die for that person, I can’t even imagine doing that.
But that’s exactly what Jesus did. And he didn’t just die for disciples who failed him, he continues to pour out his love on them. And he doesn’t just pour out his love on them, he makes them an integral part of his kingdom. No one deserved to be apostles less than the apostles! And no one deserves Jesus’ love less than you & me.
And yet he loves us. And he died for us. And he uses us. If that’s the case, there is hope for anyone! If Jesus can use me, he can use anyone! It’s about Jesus’ goodness and accomplishments and worthiness, and it’s not about mine. 1 Cor 1.26-31 says it well:
There are not many wise, not many mighty, not many noble here at All Saints. Just sinners who far too often don’t get it and say and do the wrong things.
But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and God has chosen the base things of the world and the despised, the things that are not, to nullify the things that are.
Therefore no one at All Saints may boast before God. By His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”