January 16, 2021

iMonk 101: Jesus, Joel and The Hard Parts of the Gospel

From February of 2005. I’ve never reprinted this one and it’s one of the most “Jesus shaped” essays I’ve written. I have renamed it. It was originally called “Read It Again…And Don’t Skip The Hard Parts.”

read.jpgLet’s be honest. A lot of Christians have no idea what to do with the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry. What does it mean? What does it have to do with evangelism, church growth and “having a great life now?”

Many of the readers of Internet Monk are familiar with my interest in the Gospel of Mark. I started seriously studying Mark in 1982, in my second year at seminary. I’ve continued reading and studying Mark ever since, in much greater depth than any other Gospel.

Since I came to where I serve today, I’ve had the opportunity to teach the Gospel of Mark 2-5 times a year for a 9-12 week term for 15 of my 17 years here. The Gospel of Mark has really become a part of my mental furniture, and I know my friends have logged plenty of eye-rolls when I reference the Gospel at every possible opportunity.

I admit that it’s a habit, but it’s also a way of thinking, and that way of thinking is increasingly feeding my conviction that the Gospels- in particular the ministry of Jesus in the first half of the synoptics- need far more attention than they typical receive from the typical church or Christian.

When I first started studying the Bible seriously, I studied the epistles. I had no idea where to fit the teaching and miracles of the Gospels into my Christianity. Preachers took the miracles and turned them into all kinds of things: outlines, illustrations, allegories. There was a sense that the Gospels were full of things that just didn’t matter all that much when compared to the efficient, memorizable outline of the Roman Road or the practical teaching of the epistles and the pastoral letters.

My Pentecostal/Charismatic friends, of course, had a slightly different take. They believed the things Jesus did in those miracles were things we ought to be doing now. Didn’t Jesus tell his disciples they would do greater works than he did? So no matter what I thought about it, the Pentecostals who were praying for healing and miracles did seem to be taking the Gospels themselves more at face value.

My own church had pointed me into Scofield-style dispensationalism, and that unique approach meant that much of what Jesus did in the Gospels didn’t really matter for today. Either Jesus was presenting the Kingdom to the Jews of his time, or he was teaching a “Kingdom ethic” for the distant future. Either way, it was easier to go to the writing of Paul, where the questions and answers were more straightforward.

Now, many years later, I have as much appreciation for Paul as ever, but I have begun to suspect something about our uneasy relationship with the Gospels.

Jesus makes things very complicated for American Christians. If you simply follow him around in the Gospels, you are going to get into trouble. Why? Because he isn’t just talking evangelism. He’s talking about a whole life of Kingdom-dominated, life-transforming discipleship.

Let me use an illustration. Years ago, I found myself in a young adult men’s Sunday School class at the church I was serving. I was joining in for some fellowship with men my age, and I wasn’t teaching. The lesson that day was on Matthew 19:21-24. Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell all he has and give it the poor, then come follow him. The young man refuses, and Jesus says it is very difficult for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom.

There was a tangible discomfort in that room full of young doctors, lawyers, realtors and entrepreneurs. They didn’t consider themselves “rich” by American standards (which is absurd,) but the text hit close enough to home that the discussion quickly took the tract of “Well….of course, he didn’t mean that we should actually do that. Right?”

I don’t want to critique those guys. I just want to note that when the Jesus of the early chapters of the Gospels gets loose at the party, things don’t head directly to the subject of church growth or the latest evangelism tract. He gets inside your suit, and he irritates you. He wants things to change, and it makes us nervous.

You see, Jesus is proclaiming the arrival of the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15), and at the heart of it are two things that are fairly challenging to all of us in the materialistic, prosperous west.

1) The announcement that a climactic time has arrived, and the present age has come to it’s fulfillment point. In other words, a new world, a new creation, is arriving with Jesus. Something happens. “Personal Savior?” I don’t think so.

2) The call is not simply to believe some short form outline of “How to get saved,” but to repent and believe the good news. There is a reorienting/rebirthing of life at fundamental levels. Big questions get asked and answered: What is your God like? Who is your neighbor? How does the Kingdom look when you live in it? Will you follow Jesus to the cross?

These concerns are present in the epistles, but the Gospels go far beyond the epistles in putting the Kingdom in front of us, because everything Jesus says and does is dominated by this Kingdom he is announcing…..and his actions and words make it very clear what kinds of changes must take place. The disciples are blown away by it all, and that’s our cue to get our helmets on as well.

So when you read the Gospels, Jesus is including the excluded, healing the hopeless, remaking Israel, reaching out to the pagan, overturning the religious professionals, redefining all the predictable terms, shocking those who know all the answers and, in general, making it unmistakably clear that the Kingdom isn’t just about forgiveness and “heaven,” but about the life we are living- and will live- in the Kingdom here, now and in the future.

Most of our study of the early chapters of the Gospels ignore what Jesus is doing, and leave the impression that Jesus wandered around Galilee proving that he was the Son of God, so that when he died we would get the whole, “God’s Son died for your sins” thing. We don’t seem to get the purpose of all of this. It’s not the warm-up act for the cross: it’s the Kingdom. It’s what Jesus came to bring, and to give to us. It’s a Kingdom with a crucified and risen Messiah, but it’s always a Kingdom where believing and belonging mean revolution.

In fact, Jesus is teaching, eating, doing miracles, staging prophetic announcements and performances, shocking the authorities, teaching on a reborn/remixed Israel, training disciples, telling stories and all the rest for the express purpose of saying that if God is here now, and his Kingdom is present now, then YOUR life is going to be deeply transformed. God himself is going to give your life an entirely different definition and direction.

When you break down Mark’s Gospel, it is fascinating to see how discipleship becomes the focus AFTER Jesus brings the cross into view (Mark 8:31, Mark 9:31, Mark 10:33-34) In chapters nine and ten, the disciples are following Jesus to Jerusalem, and he’s made it plain what is going to happen. But they are debating with one another which of them is the greatest, and asking really contemporary questions like this whopper:

Mark 10:32-37 32 And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. 34 And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.” 35 And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

It’s pretty safe to say that “..we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you” wasn’t what Jesus had been working toward in the lives and hearts of these men. But this is typical of what Christianity becomes without the Cross, the Kingdom and Discipleship. It becomes a way for us to get “whatever we want” from God.

Listening to the first part of the Gospel story is vital if we are going to understand what Jesus was presenting in “the Gospel” of the Kingdom. It is vital that we will hear, so we will stop trying to find ways to get out of it, and make Christianity into a way to get the best seats for the entertainment and fun that we want so much.

Let me be honest. Currently setting atop the New York Times Bestseller List is “1. YOUR BEST LIFE NOW, by Joel Osteen.”

Joel Osteen and thousands upon thousands of other Christian teachers, authors and pastors, are telling Americans how to get their “best life now.” This has about as much to do with the Kingdom of Jesus Christ as we see it in the Gospels as a Big Mac, fries and a shake have to do with a healthy dinner.

Have you ever thought about this? We are living in the most fabulously wealthy, excessively entertained and unimaginably prosperous nation in the history of the world. We have a standard of living, and a level of comfort, that much of the rest of the world cannot imagine. We have so glutted ourselves with pleasure, comfort and excess that we are morphing into a nation of fat kids hooked up to video games being fed pizza by the servants.

Yet Christian pastors like Osteen are preaching on how YOU can GET MORE. MORE!! Better! How YOU can have your “best life now.” Having a great life in this culture of ours is a major concern of Christians. It’s insane. It’s as if God has lost his mind, and American Christians think it’s great. Jesus is the savior of the world, and his Kingdom is going to last forever, but we want a God who will sign the invoice for a Humvee, a cabin by the lake, and breast enhancements for Mom’s birthday.

Tens of millions will buy Osteen’s book that includes descriptions of how God helped him get a great parking place, how his children want to lead his Lakewood Church to a bigger facility than the $82 million Campaq Center, and how God’s blessing almost always manifests itself in a great new house for people of faith. This is the Kingdom of Jesus….The American dream for white yuppies in suburban Texas.

Osteen’s book is on the top of the best-seller list because thousands of Christian are convinced that this God of increasing American prosperity is the God of the Bible. They are clueless, even with their Bible’s open, because their pastors have found ways to shut Jesus up and make him the servant of the American dream.

How can we break the news to these folks? They are wrong. So wrong, so deeply wrong, that their religion of “Lord, give us whatever we want…now,” has almost nothing in common with what Jesus is saying and doing in the Gospels. The Kingdom he is bringing overturns this nonsense. The Jesus of the Gospel proclaims the promises of prosperity, real estate and parking places to be empty. If we will listen. He’s just as discomforting now as ever, unless we render him the harmless servant of our desires.

Rather than telling us about your best life now, Jesus talks over and over about persecution, sacrifice, voluntary poverty and laying down the images and symbols of success for the lasting worth and influence of the Kingdom of Jesus. People who believe the Father of Jesus Christ gives life meaning don’t hand him a list of goodies and demand that he fork over the stuff. The read the Beatitudes, and the Lord’s Prayer, and the example of Jesus with their hearts open to what these things mean in their most obvious sense. No games or exceptions.

Osteen and other American evangelicals believe there is a crisis afoot over whether God is good enough for Americans to believe in him. Jesus demonstrated the goodness of God by including the outcasts and accepting the last, lost, least and overlooked. Evangelicals want God to make their life great…now. Jesus called us to a life of giving someone else a taste of the life they had missed; a life of finding our Joy in the Spirit, not in the flashy trash of the culture. There is joy in the Kingdom of heaven, Jesus said. Joy over one sinner who repents.

It is the older brother of the prodigal son who insists that his Father hasn’t done anything for him lately. The Father invites that son to a resurrection celebration for his reclaimed and restored son. The joy of the Father was there to be had, but entering into it meant entering into the “work” of the Father.

That is what Jesus was doing. John 5 makes it very clear: we are invited to see the Father doing what we see Jesus doing in the Gospels. Then we are invited to that Kingdom and to that same discipleship. Living the life. Making the sacrifices. Repenting. Reaching across the barriers. All of life pointing to Jesus, and to his Kingdom now and from now on.

We are getting a lot wrong. Our ministry should look like the ministry of Jesus. Our “Christianity” should grow right out of those first chapters of Mark. Our goal should be lives that embrace what Jesus shows us during those months in the dusty, desperate villages of Galilee. We need to return to the Gospels believing they matter, and quit avoiding the tensions created by Jesus as he lived the ultimate “purpose-driven” life in the real world.

If our theology has disposed of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry and teachings (before the Passion,) then lose your theology. Pick up the book and read again, and don’t skip the hard parts.


  1. Joel Osteen is right, we can have our best life now, the only problem is in his definition of “best life”. Jesus (the second Adam) came to restore what the first Adam lost and I believe it is for us now. The Kingdom of Heaven is here and we are to experience it fully and completely NOW.

    One question that might be asked and a belief that has permeated the Spirit-filled church; Was Jesus rich? Are we to be rich? We must look to the spiritual definition of riches. Jesus had no treasures built up here on earth but when a need arose He met the need. That is true wealth. This is different from being rich. The church must look different from the world and frankly right now there are too many similarities.

    The life of Jesus is our example, He walked, preached and breathed the Kingdom and you are right this is a message lost to modern Christianity. Jesus did not preach salvation and only mentioned it when it was asked of Him. Remember the first words of both John the Baptist and Jesus when they started their ministry. Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 3:1-2 (NASU); From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 4:17 (NASU) This is the message from Jesus from His ministry from beginning to end. Maybe we need to take a closer and deeper look. The Kingdom is all about GRACE the message the church is preaching today is based primarily on sin-conscientious. This has been 100% covered by the blood of Christ. I will ask then, what part of forgiveness don’t you understand?

    The “Great Commission” has even been distorted. It is now all about salvation (this could get me off on another whole direction, another time) which is only a small part of the Gospel. Matthew 24:14 states that “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come. NASU In Mark 16:17 it says “These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; This part of the Gospel is rarely taught. Why? Because we have been taught these things have past. Funny how we will dissect the scripture and use only what is in our religious comfort zone.

    To sum up, we will begin to understand the Kingdom when we understand who we are in Christ. I don’t just mean the knowledge that we are saved and going to heaven. I mean our true identity. We are still taught that we are servants/slaves of Christ but Jesus said, in John 15:15 “No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you. (NASU) Jesus also tells us in 2 Cor 5:21 of our position and status to Father; He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (NASU) We are sons and daughters of Heavenly Father which gives us all the rights and authority afforded legal heirs. In Galations 4:6 it says; Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” WOW!! Abba translated “daddy” is the most intimate relationship we can have with Father and only His children have the right to call him this, not servants. I may serve Christ but no longer am I his “servant”. This is awesome.

  2. Michael, interesting perspective on “how discipleship becomes the focus AFTER Jesus brings the cross into view.” I have been preaching through Mark for almost a year now, and I preached on the confession of Peter this morning, noting that William Lane called it the turning point of the Book. I am preaching on 8:34ff next week, so I am going to have to think about your post-cross discipleship statement. That may give me a different angle to explore.

    The perspective I took this morning was to focus on how Peter understood that Jesus was the Messiah, but didn’t know what that meant, and so he was in a way like the blind man in the previous pericope, who Jesus healed in stages.

    Then I focused on the word “logos” as a signal that what Jesus revealed was the Gospel, and compared that to 1 Cor. 15. Finally, I highlighted the fact that as soon as Jesus revealed the Gospel and spoke “the word” plainly, Mark records Jesus’ words regarding discipleship, as a natural reaction to the Gospel.

    As someone who has studied Mark so deeply, I wonder what feedback you would give me as to my sermon this week and what you advice you might give me for next week.

    Also, I just purchased Robert Stein’s new commentary on Mark (BECNT) and wonder if you have had a chance to check it out. I thought it was much better so far than R.T. France (NIGTC) or William Lane (NICNT), though I wish Stein would focus less on answering “liberal” view points.

  3. MAJ Tony says

    Zman: what about the part where Jesus tells (insert particular sinner here) “go and sin no more.” Are you saying don’t worry about your current state insofar as the commission of sins?

  4. MAJ Tony, I’m not Zman but I think you missed his whole point which was not even about sin,but since you brought it up please allow me a word. I believe the answer is GRACE. We the church have yet to understand grace. Paul faced this very thing when he wrote to the church at Galatia. We say we believe He covered our sin but then we revert back to the law and works.We cannot mix the law with grace and yet, sadly, this is how the majority of the church lives. Paul preached radical grace,by faith. He said to the Galatian church,…”you are foolish to think you can complete by your own efforts, what was begun by the Spirit…” Gal. ch. 3. For eons now, the church says,”come, recieve by faith”,,and than afterwards says,,do this , don’t do that, go to church, read your bible, spend quiet time, do not sin,,pray harder,,etc., etc. If we believe our sin is covered,then,just as the Galatians, we are foolish to think we can attain to anything in our own efforts. All we need to do is believe. Are we the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus or not?? If He says we are then we are. Are we holy or not? if He says we are then we are!! Here is what happens. We recieve and then we look at our life which fall far short ,,we walk by sight and NOT by faith,,,,YES,,WE DO,,,and that is exactly why Jesus went to the cross. You see, Paul’s grace message was so radical that this question was asked,,,”…so does this mean we can go on sinning…”,,sound familiar? I believe the truth is this,,,it is impossible for us to sin,,in Gods eyes. Jesus said it was finished. He took our sin an destroyed it,,threw it as far as the east is to the west!!! We are the only one who see’s our sin and boy are we good at that. We judge ourselves and we judge others. See the real good news is just too good for us to believe and keep on believing. He says we are excellent and He is totally delighted in us but we see that we sin and fall short and then we say we are sorry and we work and work, and after we think we are sorry enough,we come around and accept His grace again. WOW!!! He said, ALL of our righteousness is like filthy rags. Most true believers know we cannot save ourself but then after grace by faith,,we fall for the devils lies. Now,, I have had people say,,but,,but,,sin has to be punished. Then I agree,,,sin does have to be punished,,AND IT WAS!!! It is finished,,just like He said.
    Jesus also died to cleanse our conciousness of sin. To redeem us from sin conciousness. Remember, the first Adam ate from the tree of the KNOWLEDGE of good and evil,,,bam,,,there it was,,he was all of a sudden,,concious of his nakedness. See Jesus, the 2nd Adam changed all that for us, and it is not as though we appear righteous and holy before Almighty Father,,because of the sacrifice ,,,WE ARE,,WE ARE RIGHTEOUS AND HOLY!!! We have to stop looking at sin, and believe God. I believe this is how we actually find the rest that is talked about in Hebrews. God did not rest on the last day because he was tired,,,He rested because he was finished,,IT IS FINISHED and we need only believe, recieve and rest!!! Now to me,,THIS IS REALLY GOOD NEWS!! Finally,, the really big delima,,,does this give me a liscence to sin,,,no way,,I’m so thankful I can finally enter His rest. It is all about Fathers love for me,,it is no longer about sin or even what I do for him.

  5. MAJ Tony,

    As stated in the above reference my comments were not in direct relation to an individual sinful act but rather to the whole broad concept of sin. I believe our sin has been completely covered, past, present and future so in reality sin is no longer an issue in my life. It is finished. However, am I perfect in my fleshly body, absolutely not? I can still “trespass” which is simply going (doing) something I should not. Do I need to ask forgiveness? No! Forgiveness has already been taken care of. Nothing I do or don’t do can change this.

    We are a people consumed by a sin-conscious nature that is keeping us in bondage by preventing us from recognizing our true identity in Christ. The answer is a revelation of GRACE. If Father looks at me and he sees His son (me) as righteous I should also see myself in the same way.

    For many years I saw myself as a sinner, redeemed yes but still a sinner. No more. I am a son of the living God, a son, an heir, a priest and king. In Romans 8:11 it says, But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. The Spirit lives in me; I am now a temple of God. This to me is the best indicator of how Father sees me, holy and righteous.

    In the Old Testament the temple or tabernacle had to be built exactly to the design of God before He would come and dwell there. I am now that dwelling place declared by Father as a perfect place for His Spirit to live.

    I realize some of my beliefs may seem radical but so were Jesus teachings but only to the religious leaders. I have let Holy Spirit be my one and only teacher not man.

    I believe Satan has kept us in bondage by blinding us to who we really are in Christ. He keeps reminding us of sin which in turn creates guilt. And many would say that is a good thing, it is our conscious at work but truly it only perpetuates condemnation which keeps us in a vicious cycle of never thinking we are adequate. But the truth is therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. Romans 8:1-2

    Then when you couple that with the next verse we will begin to understand and experience freedom that Jesus knew. Romans 8:14-15 says 4 For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. 15 For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” We are sons and because we are sons we are afforded all the rights as a son. And once we know in the depth of our heart that we are sons of God we can begin to understand the fullness of grace which will put sin into its proper perspective.

    Also on a side note. That passage you referred to about the woman caught in adultery is a somewhat contested passage. Most early manuscripts don’t recognize the passage.

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