Since the late 1980’s I’ve taught a two-hour course entitled “The Biblical Basis for Christian Holiness.” From the beginning, this course has been designed to provide a holistic understanding of the Bible’s teaching on this subject in order that God might use this truth to confront us and make us holy. The person who has probably taken and audited more seminary-level courses than anyone I know told me that it was one of the two most significant courses he had experienced. Developing this course has been a rich experience for me that has clarified my thinking and shaped my walk with God.
We begin this course by describing the holiness of the believer as “walking in fellowship with God and reflecting His character.” In this blog I want to highlight what the Gospel of Mark can teach us about a deeper life of holiness. In Mark 1:16-20 we see the first disciples respond to Jesus’ call, followed in 2:15-17 by Levi the tax collector. It is clear that, as Jesus announced in 1:14-15, following him begins with repentance, with a turning away from the old sinful way of life. Only those who recognize the depth of their sin and the urgency of their need will be able to receive the salvation that He brings. If repentance is one side of the Gospel coin, then “believing the Gospel” is the other. This “believing” is clearly expressed by the way in which these first disciples embraced Jesus by following Him.
From the choice of the twelve in Mark 3:13-20 through Peter’s confession in 8:27-30 and the following journey to Jerusalem, Jesus focuses on those who have followed Him. By His actions and teaching He is revealing His identity to them as the God-Man, the one who, like the God of the Old Testament, can still the storm with a word, can feed a multitude in the wilderness, can drive out a legion of demons and restore a man’s sanity, indeed, who can forgive sin. Peter’ confession of Jesus as “the Christ” near Caesarea Phillipi shows that the disciples have begun to grasp this truth. They are followers. They are committed.
When they have thus committed themselves, Jesus announces that He is going to Jerusalem to suffer at the hands of the rulers, be crucified, and rise again (Mark 8:31-33). Then he announces that anyone who would come after Him “must deny himself, take up his cross” and follow Jesus (8:34-37). We who have followed Jesus are, along with these disciples, confronted with this same choice—turn back from following Him or deny ourselves and take up our cross in order to follow Him and go where He goes.
The long road from Caesarea Phillipi to Jerusalem and crucifixion stretches from Peter’s rebuke of Jesus (Mark 8:32) to James and John’s request for preeminence in 10:35-45. The disciples’ struggles on this road to crucifixion help us understand the meaning of “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me.” This is a denial of oneself that leads to death. It is not, however, death to self-interest. God appeals to our self-interest when He offers us eternal glory. Our self-interest is not to be destroyed, but to be extended to our neighbor, whom we are to love as ourselves. The experience of the disciples on this road shows us, however, that Jesus is referring to the death of self-centeredness, self-promotion, and self-aggrandizement; to that competitive spirit that finds satisfaction in being honored above others, controlling others, having more than others. Notice how this section highlights the disciples arguing over who among them will be the greatest (Mark 9:33-37; 10:35-45). Observe their pride of group when they want Jesus to silence others who cast out evil spirits in his name (9:38-41), and their hubris in driving the children from Him (10:13-16). They are shocked at the all but insurmountable barrier presented by greed (10:17-27), and at the sexual purity required of the disciple (10:2-12). Like the blind man at Bethsaida (8:22-27), they see that Jesus is the Christ, but they have blurry vision. They have not yet become like Bartemaeus (8:46-52), who sees clearly, abandons all, and follows Jesus the Messiah “on the way” to the cross. This death to self-centeredness to which we are called is, of course, only possible through the work of Christ applied by the Spirit with whom Christ baptizes the people of God (Mark 10:45, 1:8).
What would characterize the community life of a people who had died to their own self-centeredness? Paul gives an appropriate description in the fourth chapter of Ephesians: “I implore you, then, I who am a prisoner in the Lord, walk worth of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with longsuffering, putting up with one another in love, striving to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3). Or again at the end of this chapter, “be then kind, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (4:32 NASB). In such a community Jesus’ words would find fulfillment: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for each other” (John 13:35).
When you look around at the churches you know, do you see this kind of life? I’m thinking particularly of churches in the Wesleyan or Holiness movement who claim as a distinctive “holiness of heart and life.” If the answer is no, then, what has gone wrong? That is the question we will address in next week’s blog, entitled, “Holiness Unto the Lord. Part Two: The Marred Beauty of the Church.” Look for it next Thursday, Feb 22, 2018.