The First Confession of Jesus’ Deity

In the Gospel of Mark, the first person to confess that Jesus is the Son of God was the guard presiding over His torturous killing.  A hardened centurion to whom death and crucifixion was not new.  Maybe even routine.  Yet, the death of Jesus caused a spark of realization in the stony heart of this man.  On that brutal day, he would be the first person to recognize and proclaim the deity of Jesus.

At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour.  And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” – which means, “My God, me God, why have you forsaken me?”… With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain was torn in two from top to bottom.  And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
(Mark 15:33-34, 37-39)

In the book King’s Cross, author Timothy Keller unveils the scene and profession of the centurion:

At the moment Jesus Christ died, this massive curtain was ripped open… Now that Jesus has died, anybody who believes in him can see God, connect to God.  The barrier is gone for good… And that’s only possible because Jesus has just paid the price for our sin.  Anybody who believes can go in now.

To make sure we get the point, Mark immediately shows us the first person who went in: the centurion.  His confession, “Surely this man was the Son of God,” is momentous.  Why? Because the first line in the first chapter of Mark refers to “Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  Up to this point in Mark, no human being had figured that out.  The disciples had called him the Christ, though in the prevailing culture the Christ was not considered to be divine.  All along, Jesus’s teachings and acts of power – and even his testimony in front of the chief priests – had been pointing to the fact that he was divine.  And people had been asking, “Who is this?”  But the first person to get it was the centurion who presided over his death…

Centurions were not aristocrats who got military commissions; they were enlisted men who had risen through the ranks.  So this man had seen death, and had inflicted it, to a degree that you and I can hardly imagine. Here was a hardened, brutal man.  Yet something had penetrated his spiritual darkness.  He became the first person to confess the deity of Jesus Christ.

There is a striking contrast between the centurion and everyone else around the cross.  The disciples – who had been taught by Jesus repeatedly and at length that this day would come – were completely confused and stymied.  The religious leaders had looked at the very deepest wisdom of God and rejected it… The centurion had seen many people die – and many of those by his own hand.  Yet even for him this death was unique.  He saw something about Jesus’s death that was unlike any other.  The tenderness of Jesus, despite the terror, must have pierced right through his hardness.  The beauty of Jesus in his death must have flooded his darkness with light (pp. 207-208).

Consider the impact upon the centurion.  Consider the potential implications.  If even the person who presided over the murderous death of the Savior of the world could confess Jesus as the Son of God, then there is hope for salvation for you, me, the most tenderhearted, and the most hardhearted person.  Salvation is not based upon what we have or have not done.  Salvation is based upon the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.  He bore the punishment due to each of us, so “that whosoever believes in Him would not perish but would have eternal life” (John 3:16).

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Jesus and the Fig Tree

There is a portion of the gospels that causes some people some concerns concerning the character of Jesus Christ.  Sometimes the concern comes from environmentalists who see Jesus as not being very eco-friendly.  Other times (the majority of the time) the concerns come from a sense that Jesus has expressed some unwarranted or unjustified anger.  The portion of Scripture in question is about a fig tree that is not bearing fruit.  It can be found in multiple gospel accounts, but the Gospel of Mark puts it like this:

The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry.  Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit.  When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs.  Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”  And his disciples heard him say it. (Mark 11:12-14)

Why does Jesus curse a tree for not bearing fruit when it is not even the season for bearing figs?  Is Jesus not demanding the impossible and something contrary to nature?  The scene appears to be looking bad for Jesus.  Yet, add some horticulture knowledge of fig trees in the Middle East and a person will begin to see that this was not a temper-tantrum by Jesus.  Timothy Keller describes it this way in King’s Cross:

Middle Eastern fig trees bore two kinds of fruit.  As leaves were starting to come in the spring, before the figs came, the branches bore little nodules, which were abundant and very good to eat.  Travelers liked to pick them off and eat them as they made their journey.  If you found a fig tree that had begun to sprout leaves but had none of these delicious nodules, you would know that something was wrong.  It might look okay from a distance because the leaves had emerged, but if it had no nodules it was diseased or maybe even dying inside.  Growth without fruit was a sign of decay.  Jesus is simply pronouncing that such is the case here (p. 160).

Common knowledge plant life has been explained.  But is Mark simply recording an interested event in the life and times of Jesus, or is he recording the event under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to make a bigger point? The latter.  Keller explains:

Remember that this happens between his first arrival at the temple and his return to the temple the next day.  Jesus seizes the opportunity to provide a private, memorable object lesson, a parable against hollow religiosity, with the fig tree as a visual aid… Jesus finds the fig tree not doing its appointed job. The tree became a perfect metaphor for Israel, and beyond that, for those claiming to be God’s people but who do not bear any fruit for him.  Jesus was returning to a place that was religiously very busy, just like most churches are: tasks, committees, noise, people coming and going, lots of transactions.  But the busyness contained no spirituality.  Nobody was actually praying. There are many things we do that can appear to be signs of real belief but can grow without real heart change and without real compassionate involvement with others… Jesus is saying that he wants more than busyness; he want the kinds of character change that only comes from realizing that you have been ransomed (pp. 160-161).

The point is poignant.  Are we simply busy with religious activities, or are actively engaged with the transforming life of Jesus Christ?  Are we simply professing words of faith, or are we living by faith?  If we are simply saying words and performing tasks life there will not be noticeable change.  If we are living by faith there will be the fruit of change – change that is apparent to the world around us; change that is transforming us over time into resembling the person of Jesus Christ from the inside out.

The full impact of Jesus in a person’s life comes from centering one’s life on Jesus Christ and not attempting to fit Jesus somewhere into one’s life.  Timothy Keller offers this concluding thought, “Please don’t try to keep Jesus on the periphery of your life.  He cannot remain there.  Give yourself to him – center your entire life on him – and let his power reproduce his character in you” (p. 162).

Teen Magazine Confession

Insecurities.  We all have them.  But it seems that the marketing departments take special aims at young girls and teen girls.  Billboards, ads, magazines, television and all other forms of media shout that beauty is on the outside and you are not measuring up.

Christina Kelly, who has been the successful editor of Elle Girl, YM, Jane, and Sassy, wrote a confessional article about the process of the female magazine industry:

Why do we crave celebrities?  Here’s my theory.  To be human is to feel inconsequential.  So we worship celebrities and seek to look like them.  All the great things they have done we identify with in order to escape our own inconsequential lives.  But it’s so dumb.  With this stream of perfectly airbrushed, implanted, liposuctioned stars, you would have to be an absolute powerhouse of self-esteem already not to feel totally inferior before them.  So we worship them because we feel inconsequential, but doing it makes us feel even worse.  We make them stars, but then their fame makes us feel insignificant.  I am part of this whole process as an editor.  No wonder I feel soiled at the end of the day.

Quoted in Timothy Keller, King’s Cross, pp. 78-79
(“Why Do We Need Celebrities?” Utne Reader, May/June. 1993, pp. 100-101)

The Storms of Life

On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus] said to [the disciples], “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him.  And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:35-38)

“This picture goes to our hearts, because everyone who’s ever tried to live a life of faith in this world has felt like this sometimes.  Everything is going wrong, you’re sinking, and God seems to be asleep, absent, or unaware.  If you loved us, the disciples were saying, you wouldn’t let us go through this.  If you loved us, we wouldn’t be about to sink.  If you loved us, you would not be letting us endure deadly peril” (Timothy Keller, King’s Cross, p. 53).

Sound familiar?  “If you loved me, you…” Sometimes we use the “if you loved me” phrase when we have a “want” (though it is rarely a “need”) that we believe would make life so much better.  These “if you loved me” statements tend to come across like a child asking a parent to spoil them based upon their immediate desires and not long-term thinking.  Other times, the “if you loved me” statements occur during times of turmoil.  There is a thought that if God truly loved me then life would be easy.  Life would be “fair”.  Christians may even say, “Aren’t I your child?  If you really loved me I would not have to go through this.”  Because Jesus didn’t face any troubles or trials when he was on earth…oh, wait…except dealing with sinners, being tempted by the Devil, and being tortured and murdered unjustly.

“And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”” (Mark 4:38b-41)

Jesus calmed the storm, and then he responded to them.  Did he say, I can understand how you felt?  No, he asked, “Why are you so afraid?”  Can you imagine what the disciples must have been thinking?  What do you mean, why were we afraid?  We were afraid we were going to drown.  We were afraid you didn’t love us, because if you loved us, you wouldn’t let these things happen.

But Jesus’s question to them has behind it this thought: Your premise is wrong.  You should have known better.  I do allow people I love to go through storms.  You had no reason to panic… His power is unbounded, but so are his wisdom and his love.  Nature is indifferent to you, but Jesus is filled with untamable love for you…

If you have a God great enough and powerful enough to be mad at because he doesn’t stop your suffering, you also have a God who’s great enough and powerful enough to have reasons that you can’t understand.  You can’t have it both ways… If you’re at the mercy of the storm, its power is unmanageable and it doesn’t love you.  The only place you’re safe is in the will of God.  But because he’s God and you’re not, the will of God is necessarily, immeasurably, unspeakably beyond your largest notions of what he is up to (pp. 53-55).

Fanaticism, Religion, and the Gospel

“In traditional cultures you get your identity from your family.  And so when Jesus says, ‘I want priority over your family,’ that’s drastic.  In our individualistic culture, on the other hand, saying good-bye to our parents isn’t a big deal, but for Jesus to say, ‘I want priority over your career’ – that’s drastic.  Jesus is saying, ‘Knowing me, loving me, resembling me, serving me must become the supreme passion of your life.  Everything else comes second.'”
-Timothy Keller (King’s Cross, p. 18 about Mark 1:16-20)

Following Jesus, if done in the level prescribed by Jesus, is not a casual affair.  It is not something to be done in our spare time or regulated to an hour one or two days a week.  It is no easier in a community-based society than in a society based on individualism.  The gospel of Jesus pierces to the depths of a person’s soul and refuses to be boxed on by a particular cultural expression.  Ironically, following Jesus wholeheartedly enables us to live Him out in whatever cultural context we happen to inhabit.  When we free ourselves from holding onto our cultural box we end up being set free to truly express Him in our world.

Yet, this thought of putting Jesus as primary is scary and can sound a bit fanatic.  Timothy Keller puts it this way:

In many of our minds, such words cast the shadow of fanaticism.  People in our culture are afraid of fanaticism – and for good reason, really.  In this world considerable violence is being carried out by highly religious people.  Even setting aside such extremism, almost everybody knows someone, personally or by reputation, who is very religious and who is also condemning, self-righteous, or even abusive.  Most people today see religion as a spectrum of belief.  On one end are people who say they’re religious but don’t really believe or live the tenets of their religion.  On the other end you’ve got the fanatics, people who are too religious, who over-live their faith.  What’s the solution to fanaticism?  Many would say, “Well, why can’t we be in the middle?  Moderation in all things.  Not too zealous and not too uncommitted.  Being right int he middle would be just right” (pp. 18-19).

Moderation.  Sounds good, but often those in the moderation camp tend to be bigger problems to a church or Christians at large than those who over-live their faith or don’t live their faith at all.  It may sound illogical, but let us consider those who tend towards “over-living their faith”.  Yes, they do cause problems in the church and give those outside of the church bad impressions of Christians.  Yet, it doesn’t take an IQ of 165 to realize that they are not living Jesus and anyone with a semblance of being fair to a worldview would acknowledge that they don’t accurately  portray the faith.  Plus, those who are too extreme tend to not stick around that long before utterly offending everyone because and nobody likes being barraged with Bible verses as though they are tomahawk missiles.  Sometimes, the over-living is simply a person who has been dormant in their faith and have recently “come alive” and are overly zealous, forgetting that just a month ago they were just like the people they are now lambasting.  Given time, this type of person tend to calm down, and if not, they tend to isolate themselves and end up embittered because they are alone and don’t understand why people dislike their attacks.

On the other extreme, those who don’t really believe the tenets of their faith rarely express their beliefs and as a result do minimal damage to the reputation of Christ.  If they do call themselves Christians, those around them tend to give a raised eyebrow and ask, “really?”  And if they do show up to church it tends to be a matter of celebration that they are showing an interest in God.

Those who stand for moderation tend to be relatively faithful in their attendance at Christian gatherings (as long as it doesn’t conflict with a cousin’s birthday or other “major life events”), profess their faith, but are non-committal in serving.  They are those who will come to major church events and support the church as long as it is convenient.  Yet, they tend to be the loudest complainers if the church tries to implement a change, talks about tithing, or exercises discipline.  The “moderates” can also be those who talk about Jesus and spiritual things, but the impact does not appear in their daily lives regarding they use of their time, money, language, on the job behavior, and eating habits.  They talk big but the  gospel doesn’t seem to be able to penetrate too deeply into the heart.  The moderates tend to be those that fair-minded non-Christians point to and say, “If Jesus is so great, why are they no different in their daily life than most non-Christians I know?”

So, is the solution truly “moderation”?  Is that what Jesus talked about?

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).  Sound moderate?  Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me.”  He doesn’t say to the crowd, “Look, most of you can be moderate, but I do need a few good men and women who really want to go all the way with this discipleship.” He says, “anyone.”  There’s no double standard.  “If anyone wants to have anything to do with me, you have to hate your father and mother, wife and children, brother and sister, and even your own life, or you cannot be my disciples.” That’s what it means to follow Jesus…

Jesus is not calling us to hate actively; he’s calling us to hate comparatively.  He says, “I want you to follow me so fully, so intensely, so enduringly that all other attachments in your life look like hate by comparison.”  If you say, “I’ll obey you, Jesus, if my career thrives, if my health is good, if my family is together,” then the thing that’s on the other side of that if is your real master, your real goal.  But Jesus will not be a means to an end; he will not be used.  If he calls you to follow him, he must be the goal (p. 19).

So, is following Jesus really a call to fanaticism?  Jesus certainly is not calling us to moderation or to being cultural Christians.  But is he truly calling us to fanaticism?  Here is Keller’s response:

Does that sound like fanaticism?  Not if you understand the difference between religion and the gospel.  Remember what religion is: advice on how you must live to earn your way to God.  Your job is to follow that advice to the best of your ability.  If you follow it but don’t get carried away, then you have moderation.  But if you feel like you’re following it faithfully and completely, you’ll believe you have a connection with God because of your right living and right belief, and you’ll feel superior to people who have wrong living and wrong belief.  That’s a slippery slope: If you feel superior to them, you stay away from them.  That makes it easier to exclude them, then to hate them, and ultimately to oppress them.  And there are some Christians like that – not because they’ve gone too far and been too committed to Jesus, but because they haven’t gone far enough [emphasis mine].  They aren’t as fanatically humble and sensitive, or as fanatically understanding and generous as Jesus was.  Why not? They’re still treating Christianity as advice instead of good news.

The gospel isn’t advice: It’s the good news that you don’t need to earn your way to God; Jesus has already done if for you.  And it’s a gift that you receive by sheer grace – through God’s thoroughly unmerited favor.  If you seize that gift and keep holding on to it, then Jesus’s call won’t draw you into fanaticism or moderation.  You will be passionate to make Jesus your absolute goal and priority, to orbit around him; yet when you meet somebody with a different set of priorities, a different faith, you won’t assume that they’re inferior to you.  You’ll actually seek to serve them rather than oppress them.  Why?  Because the gospel is not about choosing to follow advice, it’s about being called to follow a King.  Not just someone with the power and authority to tell you what needs to be done – but someone with the power and authority to do what needs to be done, and then to offer it to you as good news (pp. 19-20).

Two Trees, Two Deaths, Two Results

“In the Garden, Adam was told, ‘Obey me about the tree – do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or you will die’… God said to Jesus, ‘Obey me about the tree’ – only this time the tree was a cross – ‘and you will die.’  And Jesus did.”
-Timothy Keller (King’s Cross pp. 11-13)

Two trees. Two deaths. Two results.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam stood before the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  He chose to disobey God and eat of the latter tree.  The result was death – spiritual death and eventual physical death for him and for all of humanity.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus figuratively stood before the tree of the cross and a tree of his own life.  He chose to obey God and be nailed to the former tree .  The result was his death, a temporary death, that resulted in the potential of life for all humanity. The tree of the cross – a tree of death – was turned into a tree of life.

“Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned… But the free gift is not like the trespass.  For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many…
For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.  Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.  For as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”

(Romans 5:12; 15; 17-19)

King’s Cross & The Gospel of Mark

I just picked up King’s Cross by Timothy Keller.  The timing is great because I just finished hearing the Gospel of Mark on CD in my car, got down with a seminary course that covered the first eight chapters of Mark, and the King’s Cross is focused on the Mark’s gospel.

Part of the introduction of the book tells the story of Emile Caillet and his article “The Book That Understands Me”.  Caillet encountered Jesus while reading the Gospels and discovered the book that understood him.  Keller compares his experience to Caillet’s:

Reading that article, I realized that the same thing had happened to me.  Though as a youth I had believed that the Bible was the Word of the Lord, I had not personally met the Lord of the Word.  As I read the Gospels, he become real to me.  Thirty years later I preached through the book of Mark at my church in New York City, in hope that many others would likewise find Jesus in the accounts of the Gospels.
This book is inspired by those sermons, and it is offered with the same aspiration for the readers (p xvi).

Having been impressed with Timothy Keller’s previous books, I look forward to exploring King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus.