This blog focuses on the quest to know and please God in a constantly increasing way. The upward journey never ends. My prayer is that this blog will reflect a heart that seeks God and that it will encourage others who share the same heart desire.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

John Mark

John Mark was a man with great potential and tremendous opportunities. While his record is not spotless, he was indeed a noteworthy leader in the early church, and his story provides insight regarding the training of leaders.

John Mark grew up in an active Christian family that was involved in Christianity from the beginning. There is speculation that John Mark was present when Jesus was betrayed; some suggest he was the young man who fled naked (Mark 14:51-52). As the gospel's author, he would have known that detail but doesn't refer to himself by name, similar to John's habit. Even without that supposition, John Mark's family followed Christ from the early years of the church. His cousin was the well-known and influential leader Barnabas.  It also seems that a body of believers met in John Mark's home. That is where the prayer meeting was held when Peter was in prison with his life threatened. "And when [Peter] realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who was also called Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying" (Acts 12:12). It is interesting that John Mark's name is included in the identification, as if his name held some significance in regards to that church. This prayer meeting took place around A.D.44.

John Mark was noticed early on by Barnabas and Saul; even before they were sent as missionaries, they apparently saw his potential. "And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, taking along with them John, who was also called Mark" (Acts 12:25). They then chose him to accompany them on their first missionary journey. John Mark helped them in their ground-breaking ministry, going with them to Salamis and Paphos. "When they reached Salamis, they began to proclaim the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews; and they also had John as their helper" (Acts 13:5). For whatever reason, John Mark did not continue on the rest of the missionary journey. "Now Paul and his companions put out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia; but John left them and returned to Jerusalem" (Acts 13:13). This abandonment was very disappointing to Paul but certainly not the end of John Mark's service. This missionary adventure was probably between A.D. 46 and 48.

John Mark then received a second chance. Paul was so disturbed by John Mark's previous departure that he wouldn't consider taking him on the second missionary journey. Barnabas, however, gave him another chance and continued this man's training. "Barnabas wanted to take John, called Mark, along with them also. But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there occurred such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus" (Acts 15:37-39). The Bible does not record the details of the missionary trip of Barnabas and John Mark, but it was a time of more training and fuller partnership. This trip was likely between A.D.49 and 51.

After his missionary journeys with Paul and Barnabas, John Mark's next astounding service took place alongside the apostle Peter. While theories vary widely, it seems probable that John Mark authored the gospel of Mark in the mid-50s. His relationship with Peter existed even at the time of the prayer meeting and probably continued and grew through the rest of Peter's life. Perhaps with some of his own knowledge, though primarily relying on the perspective of Peter, John Mark was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write the gospel of Mark.

Over the years, it seems that Paul had continued contact with John Mark and probably some ministry together with him. Paul came to esteem John Mark as a valuable fellow worker. Both Colossians and Philemon were written around A.D. 60. "Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, sends you his greetings; and also Barnabas's cousin Mark (about whom you received instructions; if he comes to you, welcome him)" (Colossians 4:10). "Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow workers" (Philemon 23-24). Paul speaks of John Mark with regard, listing him alongside many other men that he worked with and helped to train.

Peter's on-going influence of John Mark was significant. As Peter closed his first epistle, written around A.D. 64, he shares, "She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings, and so does my son, Mark" (I Peter 5:13). The terminology indicates that John Mark was likely a pupil of Peter. Even after the previous years of ministry and training, Peter continued the process with John Mark, mentoring and guiding him. Nearing the end of his life, Peter labored to leave reliable leaders behind him.

The latest reference to John Mark comes again from the apostle Paul. Around A.D. 66, he wrote, "Only Luke is with me. Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service" (II Timothy 4:11). Not only did Paul recognize John Mark's usefulness, but he valued and desired it. At a time when he was nearly alone and needed help, John Mark is the man he asked for.

John Mark's accomplishments are note-worthy; they represent the grace of God channeled through several factors. His story starts with potential and a great heritage. He was given outstanding opportunities for service and was trained and mentored by some of the most prominent leaders of the church. He was given second chances and was invested in by multiple leaders.

John Mark's role, maturity, ability, service, and reputation grew over the years. His story reveals several important components of training leaders: encouraging parents, service opportunities, second chances, increasing responsibility, multiplicity of mentors, and progressive training. When various people are willing to get involved in complementary roles, God can tremendously use people who might otherwise stay on the fringes.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Thank You

There are times in life when we are particularly aware of the kindness of others. What they do to express that kindness might not even be a big thing: a touch, a meal, a prayer, a question. Other times the kindness might be greater, such as performing a significant task that we could never have done, or regularly intervening over an extended time frame. It can be easy to take those things for granted, maybe almost expecting them. However, when those kindnesses come at a particularly difficult or vulnerable time, we are so much more aware of how thankful we are for them.

When someone does for us something that we would never have been able to do or ministers to us at a time when we feel especially overwhelmed, our hearts are (or ought to be) stirred with deep gratitude. In fact, we might find ourselves offering thanks to that person repeatedly for the same thing, perhaps mentioning it again and again over a period of time, even to the point that our repeated thanks becomes awkward for the recipient. The excessive expressions of thanks are not intended to make the person uncomfortable; they merely reflect our recognition of how significant and special their action was at that particular time, of how intensely that kindness was needed.

As hard as it can be to notice and appreciate what other people have done for us, it is possibly even more difficult to be conscious and thankful for what God does for us. After all, when we receive His gifts and kindnesses, we don't have the same face-to-face interaction. Furthermore, He performs those kindnesses on such a routine basis that we don't even focus on all He is doing. Every day God is doing things for us, often in a behind-the-scenes way, so that we don't even realize what He is working out for us. God's kind actions are always what we need, and He performs them deliberately out of what His wisdom knows is best for us.

There are times when His displays are more obvious, perhaps giving a significant breakthrough, meeting an overwhelming need, or answering a heart-felt and long-standing prayer. Whether particularly noticeable in this way or whether in the routine care of life, God deserves our thanks and praise for all His kindness to us. "Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits" (Psalm 103:1-2).

This psalm goes on to list a great many significant things that God regularly does on behalf of His people. I once read this psalm on a birthday when I was feeling particularly low - not because it was a milestone number, but because it came at a time in my life when I was especially isolated and forgotten. As I considered this psalm, I was touched by God's expressions of goodness, and I organized the various aspects into a non-traditional poem that I entitled "My Birthday Gifts."

God gives me lovingkindness.
He abounds with it and places it on my head.
It is great, as high as heaven is above earth.
It lasts from everlasting to everlasting.

God gives me compassion.
He places His compassion on my head.
He is compassionate and gracious.
Because He knows my frail frame of dust,
He gives His fatherly compassion.

God gives me strength and blessing.
He is the healer of my diseases.
He gives me renewed youth like an eagle.
He gives me enough good things to satisfy.

God gives me His righteous rule.
His rule is sovereign over all.
He displays His acts to me.
He performs righteous deeds and judgments for the oppressed.
His righteousness extends through generations.

God gives me forgiveness.
He is slow to anger.
He has not dealt as harshly as my sins deserve.
He pardons all my iniquities.
He removed my sins as far away as east is from west.
He redeemed my life from the pit and gave me salvation.

Thank You, God, for Your gifts.
May I forget none of Your benefits.
Even the angels bless You.
I too should bless You.
Bless the Lord. Bless His name.

This combination of practical and spiritual gifts is typical of God's interaction. There have been some things in my own life recently that have caused me to focus on some notable kindnesses of God - special provisions and answers to long-standing prayer. I have been thankful for those things, but as my thoughts turned again to Psalm 103, I remembered that God has done and is doing for me a multitude of other very significant things. I don't want to take those for granted. I don't want to fail to see God's goodness to me.

Over the past few weeks, there have been several times when my heart has overflowed toward God by simply saying, "Thank You. Thank You. Thank You." This gratitude for practical intervention is appropriate, but I don't want to forget the spiritual blessings that God has also provided for me. When I think of His love, His compassion, His blessing, His righteousness, and His forgiveness - all of which are described in Psalm 103 - may my heart also overflow with that same expression: "Thank You. Thank You. Thank You." Unlike with people, where repeated thanks could become awkward, my thanks to God will never be enough, nor will it ever be dismissed by the great God who deserves it.

"Bless the LORD, all you His hosts, you who serve Him, doing His will. Bless the LORD, all you works of His, in all places of His dominion; bless the LORD, O my soul!" (Psalm 103:21-22).

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Nature in Upheaval

When God wants to do something, nothing can stand in His way. Psalm 114 talks about when God rescued the nation of Israel from Egypt. In fact, the psalm doesn't even tell the whole story. God did some pretty amazing things through the time of the exodus, and most of them are not mentioned in this psalm. Nature was quite obviously under God's control and manipulated by His great power, and the psalm reveals that general principle.

          Reflection on Psalm 114 (God Versus Nature)

There’s knowledge sure that nature’s laws instill -
The seas lie flat and rivers flow downhill,
While mountains stand erect and hills are still.

When God performs with power strong and deep,
Away seas run and rivers form a heap.
The mountains skip; like lambs the hills do leap.

The earth should quake at God’s events so strange,
When He makes nature work outside its range;
For He can even rocks to water change.

What impact should this concept have on me,
Of His law-breaking capability?
I must submit in great humility.

The psalm clearly reveals God's power, and it also gives an application. "Tremble, O earth, before the Lord, before the God of Jacob" (v. 7). God has such remarkable control over nature, causing it to respond in totally unnatural ways if that is His desire. The earth itself is to stand in awe and fear of Him. How much more should people?

As presented in this psalm, the fact that God is so powerful is not primarily a source of inspiration and encouragement. It isn't designed to instill confidence that God will move heaven and earth on behalf of an individual. The point isn't that God will do miraculous or even incredible things for His children. Those things are possible and they might happen in some cases, but this psalm is written to instill awe in all who are aware of His great power.

If God can do the things described in this psalm, there is no way anyone should want to put himself in opposition to God. No one should have the audacity to lift himself up before God or try to exercise his own strength against God. It would be pointless to try, and it would also be foolish.

Because God has such incredible ability, the correct response of man is to humbly recognize God as the authority and to trust Him as the facilitator of all that must be done. It was true for Israel that when God chose to exercise Himself on their behalf, He did so in an extraordinary way. He may not perform such extreme actions today, but it is still true that He can do great things for His children. He is pleased when those children humbly and confidently rely on Him.

"Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time" (I Peter 5:6).

Saturday, September 29, 2018

How and When

"And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:23). "God makes a home for the lonely" (Psalm 68:6). "He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap. . . . He makes the barren woman abide in the house as a joyful mother of children" (Psalm 113:7&9). "Who heals all your diseases" (Psalm 103:3). "Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6). "I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go" (Psalm 32:8).

These are a sampling of verses that Christians claim and cling to for action they want God to take in their lives. Often, however, believers are frustrated and discouraged when they don't see the desired answers. Their hearts cry out, "God, You have said this, but when will You do it? Why don't I see Your answer?"

As a starting point, one must accurately consider how to evaluate verses like these. Are they actual promises? Are there stated conditions for the promise? Are they promises to a particular Biblical character or group of people? Are they statements of general fact or habitual action? Are they general principles? Not every verse can be considered a promise for every individual.

Considering the healing of illnesses, for example, God does heal. He is the Great Physician, and His healing is often incredible to the point of being unexplainable by human doctors. Every disease that is healed is through God. God did make specific promises of healing to certain people and groups in the Bible, but He does not promise healing of every disease for every Christian. In fact, Scripture clearly reveals that the absence of healing is sometimes God's plan.

People will disagree to some extent about which of the verses above are actual promises for every individual and which are principles or general statements. Even allowing for possible misinterpretation of a verse's intent, however, there is a basic level at which these verses can unquestionably be understood. These verses definitely reveal God's character and reflect common ways in which His loving heart is practically displayed toward His children. Even with expectations at that level, Christians can still become frustrated and discouraged. Individual Christians wonder when God will show His love to them in these practical ways. They wonder when God will answer their prayers and intervene in their lives. They want to know when their faith will be rewarded.

Faith is always based on the Word of God. It is not merely a feeling or overwhelming sense that God is going to do something. Therefore, Christians must be careful about claiming specific personal results: I will get married, I will have a baby, I will get that job, I will have financial stability, I will be healed, or that individual will get saved. Certainly, Christians can have faith in God's power to be able to do those things. They can know that God can perform those actions, and they can even know that such action would be consistent with God's character, but they cannot know that He definitely will perform them in a particular situation.

There are promises that are unquestionably intended for every believer. "I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you" (Hebrews 13:5). "But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him" (James 1:5). "Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16). "Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you" (James 4:8). "Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time" (I Peter 5:6).

Even with these certain promises, Christians sometimes struggle to see the answers. They still become impatient and frustrated. It is instructional to note that even when there is a specific promise for a specific person, the manner and timing of that answer does not always fit human expectations. Abraham, for example, and many others never saw the fulfillment of what God had promised them, but that doesn't mean God did not keep His word. "All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance" (Hebrews 11:13).

In fact, these delays or disappointments in seeing answers are the perfect environment for exercising faith. Faith at its very core is about believing what is not seen or what cannot be seen. Faith does not require understanding how and when God will answer; it requires confidence that He will answer. While the how and when are sometimes overwhelmingly important to an individual in need, the manner and timing of the answer cannot consume him. Those aspects lie within God's wisdom and power. God will answer. He will act in love toward His children. He will respond in keeping with His character. The exact timing of His visible response and the precise method of His answer will be determined by Him.

While a believer waits for an answer that is in keeping with God's character and consistent with the principles of the Bible, or even that is clearly revealed as God's promise, he must continue trusting God. Rather than demanding immediate results, he must recognize the possibility of his own limitations and fallibility. Perhaps he has not accurately understood the verse he is claiming. Perhaps he hasn't understood the method of God's answer. Maybe he hasn't prayed enough or waited long enough.

Although there are things outside man's ability to understand, Christians can trust God. They can keep following and serving Him while they wait. They can respond with submission, praying, "Father, answer in Your time and in Your way. I choose to trust."