Personal Boundaries and Jesus

While it was still night, way before dawn, he got up and went out to a secluded spot and prayed. Simon and those with him went looking for him. They found him and said, “Everybody’s looking for you.” (Mark 1:35-36)

Jesus finally has time to slip away. He called his disciples. Cast out a demon. Healed his friend’s mother of a fever. Cared for dozens and maybe hundreds of people who had demons and sicknesses in town.

It was a rough night of sleep. Way before sunrise, he gets up off his mat on the hard floor to go pray. He wants to talk to his Father. He needs a quiet time. Recharge time. He needs to set some boundaries. So he finds the most lonely place, desolate even.

No one will find me, he thinks. This is perfect. But, really, he knows.

He prays for several minutes. An hour goes by. He wants more time. Needs it. Then, the unthinkable happens.

“Master, what in the world are you doing?” his friend Simon asked. “A quiet time now? The whole town is looking for you. They are hungering for you.”

A question passes through Jesus’ mind. How in the world did you find me? 

Jesus looks at Simon. There’s a temptation barreling over Simon’s shoulder, poised to smack Jesus right in the face. That prayer time wasn’t long enough, he hears. It was supposed to be my morning off. Ministry-free time. 

But he dodges the temptation-train. His gaze toward Peter is filled with compassion and understanding, not frustration or anger. “Alright then,” Jesus says. “Let’s keep on moving. After all, I came here to tell people about God’s kingdom.”

* * *

This episode in Mark has always struck me, particularly for its simplicity. But also because it rebukes me deeply. Here’s why.

There is a lot of discussion and teaching out there about personal boundaries and self-care. Particularly for people like me who have an occupation in ministry. Just google “self-care” and you’ll have 3,160,000,000 results in 0.55 seconds.

Boundaries and self-care are not bad things. Indeed, they are good and even necessary things. It’s important to get alone and learn how to say, “No.” Jesus was trying to do that, after all.

But personal boundaries and self-care are not ultimate. And Jesus’ actions in Mark 1 remind me of that.

He was far away from his disciples. They searched for and found him. They basically disregarded the boundaries he had set up and said, “You need to get back to work.” Imagine that. But he didn’t object. He didn’t say, “Today is my day off.” There was a need and Jesus was willing to set aside his prayer time to meet it.

Now, please hear me again. There’s nothing wrong with a day off. There’s nothing wrong with setting up a boundary. I take days off. I love days off. I try to hide in desolate places. I need this. So do you.

But here’s the big question that confronts me in this text: am I willing to set aside my perceived-right to boundaries and self-care to lay down my life to be able to see and care for the needs of someone else?

The Master was not only willing. He actually did. And we know, eventually, he gave it all up when he surrendered himself to die on the cross.

I want to be willing and ready like him.

What about you?


Day 21: Born to Die

“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

In ancient times, as today, kings were born in royal palaces and not subjected to the same kind of everyday hardships that “normal” people face. As the saying goes, “It’s good to be the king!” Jesus, however, is a different kind of king. He was not born in a palace, but in a barn. He was not spared hardships but endured a lifetime of suffering culminating in an excruciating death. Unfortunately, his disciples did not see this.

In Mark 10, James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples in his “inner circle,” asked Jesus if they might reign with him when he came into his glory. They saw leadership not as service but power and control. The other disciples got wind of it and became angry at them. It’s pure speculation, but I imagine they were not angry at James and John’s selfishness. They were probably angry James and John asked Jesus before they did! Selfish ambition makes a mess of everything.

Jesus doesn’t miss the opportunity, though. He corrects them. You know that’s how the world does leadership, right? They think of greatness in terms of who has the best seat in the house, who wears the finest clothes, who has the most power. But in my kingdom it’s backwards. You want to be great? Be nothing. You want to be powerful? Serve somebody. You want to reign with me?  Then come, die with me.

Jesus was not born to kick back and have lowly people wait on him hand and foot while he reigned with an iron first. Jesus was born to die. In his death, he served us by taking our place, paying the infinite debt we owe God because of sin. And when we fix our eyes on this Servant who ransomed us from slavery to self-glory through dying, we, too, will become servants who die to self and reject worldly power for something far better.

Scripture and Reflection Questions
Read Mark 10:35-45

  1. Consider the best leaders you have ever followed? What did you admire about them?
  2. Do you see leadership as an opportunity to lord it over someone or serve them? When you see the darkness of “lording it over” come upon you, how do you respond?
  3. How should the circumstances around Jesus’ birth, life, and death shape the way we live in God’s kingdom? Do these things make any difference at all?
  4. If Jesus was born to die, what does that mean for you at home, school, work, etc.?
  5. How can you grow as a servant? Where do you need to “die” with Jesus and become more like him?

From We Look for Light: Readings and Reflections for Advent

Ministry Theology

Examples Can’t Save You, But A Redeemer Can

This past Sunday I was officially installed as the associate pastor of Grace Chapel of Clifton Park, NY. It was a wonderful morning for us as a church family. It was especially meaningful for my wife and I as we were “grafted in” to this congregation. Hopefully this week, I’ll have some time to write a post reflecting on the morning. My wife has already done that on her blog.

After the installation ceremony, I preached a message titled “Servants of the Servant” from Mark 10:32-52. Here’s an excerpt from that message.

The foundation of being the kind of people who self-sacrifice for each other is a Servant King who not only models that kind of life, but actually gives up his life as a ransom to redeem us. You see, Jesus is not merely saying to us, “I’m your example! I’m a servant! Imitate me!” If he were saying that, it would crush us. We could never live up to his example. That’s why it bothers me so much when I hear, “On the cross, Jesus is the greatest example of love.” He is! But he is so much more than an example! Examples can’t save you. But a Redeemer can. Jesus is saying, “I came to ransom you from that kind of life! You don’t need to live for your glory anymore. Don’t you see your need? Don’t you see that you are enslaved to something you weren’t made for, something that will never exist? Don’t you see you are hungering for self, self, self, rather than grace, mercy, and redemption? You should drink this cup of wrath and be baptized into judgment for your self-glorifying hunger. But I will take it for you. I will give my life as a ransom. And once you’ve been ransomed, what else can you do but make yourself a servant and slave of everyone you meet?”

Listen to the whole thing.


Fig Trees, Moving Mountains, and Forgiveness

After a long walk on a hot day, Jesus was hungry and wanted a snack. He walked up to a fig tree that was starting to sprout green leaves even though it wasn’t the season for figs. He immediately curses the tree: Woe to you, figs! (speculation, of course). The disciples hear the curse and probably wonder if Jesus woke up on the wrong side of his rock that day (see Mark 11:12-14).

Well, Jesus wasn’t in a bad mood and he didn’t wake up on the wrong side of anything. This curse was an object lesson for the disciples—immature, hardheaded, impressionable men who so often failed to get it. Immediately after the fig tree incident Jesus and the disciples enter the temple and Jesus starts to “clear out” the temple (Mark 11:15-19). That means he got fired up, tipped over tables, threw coins on the ground, and told the hypocrites who did not truly love God to leave God’s building.

So immediately after cursing the fig tree, Jesus enters the temple to curse the Jews, essentially saying, “I don’t want your lip service and legalism.” How does this connect to the poor, inanimate tree? The reference of the fig tree implicated Israel, who was often referred to as a fruitless fig tree by God (see Jer. 8:13; Hos. 9:10; et al.) Israel often appeared righteous (remember the green leaves?), but was actually wicked and dead. Not much had changed by Jesus’s day, and, in prophetic fashion, he exposes their idolatry again.

In Mark 11:20-25, Jesus fully explains why he cursed the tree. By cursing the tree (and clearing the temple), Jesus teaches the disciples that they are to do whatever is necessary to remove obstacles to fruit in their lives. The point was, “Have faith in God,” then he added that faith will throw mountains into the sea. “Moving mountains” is a hyperbolic expression and was historically used for what seemed impossible to accomplish (Isa. 40:4; 49:11; 54:10). Faith in Christ overcomes seemingly impossible obstacles (cf. 1 John 5:4). The implicit point also is that faith is in God. It does not take much faith to move a “mountain”—faith only the size of a mustard seed, actually (Matt. 17:20). Therefore, it’s not the amount of faith that matters, but the object of faith. Jesus then tells the disciples the oft-quoted popular line, “Whatever you ask in prayer,  believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Jesus is not giving an un-qualified promise for a certain kind of “prayer of faith.” He simply says, “If there is something that is standing in the way of you bearing fruit in the Christian life, pray that it will be removed and God will do it for you.” Sin, suffering, or whatever. When we seek to desire more of Christ, and we pray for it, God will do it. Maybe not immediately or the way we imagine, but he will do it.

At his conclusion (Mark 11:25), Jesus points out one major hindrance to producing fruit at: lack of forgiveness. When we pray for obstacles to be removed, but we are unforgiving toward someone, there will be no victory over our obstacles. An unforgiving heart is the greatest obstacle to bearing fruit because it shows that we truly do not understand the gospel. When we fail to forgive, we assault God’s character, grace, and sovereign work. Being habitually and resolutely unforgiving may actually prove that we have not actually experienced God’s grace at all. On the other hand, an evidence (fruit!) of God’s gracious saving activity in our lives is that we forgive others just as God in Christ forgave us (Col. 3:13).

Here are some penetrating questions to make this applicable for today:

  1. What obstacles must I overcome to bear fruit?
  2. Where am I not truly believing the gospel, focusing on Jesus as the object of my faith, and thus failing to move these “mountains”?
  3. Am I resorting toward coldhearted legalism or I am delighting in God as my supreme Treasure and letting my actions/fruit flow from that?
  4. Am I actively praying for fruit that comes out of a new identity and a true love for Jesus (see John 14:15)?
  5. Is there anyone in my life that I have not forgiven?
  6. Am I truly resting in the forgiveness I have in Christ so that I am free to quickly, sincerely, and lavishly forgive others?

What’s the Point of the Gospels?

It would, perhaps, be a seemingly great advantage had God simply inspired one, long, comprehensive and exhaustive account of Jesus life from birth to resurrection with every detail recorded.  However, that is not what seemed best to God. Unlike parts of a modern day biography, the gospel accounts of Jesus do not exist primarily tell us about the menial aspects of his life (as if the God-man had anything menial about his life), particularly childhood and adolescence. Furthermore, details that don’t seem to add up between the four gospels are most likely attributed to the perspective and emphasis the author has.  Upon deeper examination, of course, those details will more often than not complement, not contradict, each other.

If the gospels are not an exhaustive biography of Jesus’ life, what is their point? They were mainly written to show how Jesus revealed the Father to the world and how and why he came to save sinners and reconcile them to God.  In short, they were written so that we would believe Jesus as Lord and Savior.

At the end of his gospel, John wrote his purpose statement. It would be fair to say that John’s purpose is the same purpose God intends for all four gospels and the Bible itself. What was the purpose? It was not so that you might know everything about Jesus’ life, but rather that “you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31). Moreover, to begin his gospel, Luke said that he wrote his account for Theophilus so that he “may have certainly concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4).

Father, help us believe and be certain about this God-man, your Son, Jesus!